Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Special Population Studies


The remaining four data sets examined are from studies that contain data on specific populations in selected areas of the country. Three of the studies are focused on low-income families in one or more selected cities across the country. One study, the Chicago Women's Health Risk Study (CWHRS), includes a one-time sample of women in Chicago seeking treatment. Each of these studies is described below.

Chicago Women's Health Risk Study (CWHRS). Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the CWHRS (see Table 4-6) was designed to identify risk factors that place a physically abused woman or her partner in significant danger of life-threatening injury (Block, 2000). The study collected extensive baseline information on several different samples: women who had been abused in the 12 months prior to seeking general health care (n=497), women who did not report being abused during that same period (n=208), and victims of intimate homicide (based on proxy interviews) (n=87) (Block, Stevenson, Leskin, and Thomas, 2002; Block, 2000; Block, Engel, Naureckas, and Riordan, 1999). Because the CWHRS sought to include the hidden population of women who are experiencing intimate partner violence but who are unknown to service agencies, women were screened for abuse at a county hospital or at community health clinics located in neighborhoods with high rates of intimate partner homicide.

The study focused on the 49a7 women who had been physically abused at least once in the year prior to seeking general health care, collecting descriptive data on each abuse incident during the 12 months prior to seeking treatment, and reinterviewing the women one time for varying periods up to 12 months following the initial interview. Sixty-six percent (323) of the original abuse sample was reinterviewed. Data were collected on an array of risk and protective factors for abuse across the retrospective and prospective periods. These included one's living situation (with specific attention to homelessness), family composition and child separations, marital status, physical health, pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, mental health (posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and depression/suicide feelings), race/ethnicity, occupation and income, immigrant status, resource and social support network, intervention, and help seeking. Specifically, help seeking included whether assistance was sought from alcohol and drug treatment providers, a domestic violence agency, a medical provider, and/or the police.

Table 4-6. Chicago Women's Health Risk Study (CWHRS)
Sample Women seeking treatment at medical centers in areas with high rates of intimate partner homicide in Chicago
Size 705 total women interviewed, 497 experienced intimate violence in past year, 208 were in the comparison sample
Timeframe Baseline interviews conducted 1997-1998, one followup conducted from 1998-1999
Housing/homelessness Homelessness, living in a treatment center, shelter, number of people living in household (including her children), changes to household structure
Specific housing questions Was the mother homeless or living in a treatment center or shelter?
Demographics Age, race, education level, employment status, birthplace, marital status
Family Age and gender of children living in and outside of the household with mother
Service needs Physical and mental health, including general well-being, type and duration of any physical or emotional limiting condition, amount of bodily pain experienced, pregnancy outcomes, medical outcomes study, scale of depression
Agency/service involvement Alcohol/drug treatment, contacting a domestic violence-related agency or counselor, seeking medical help, and contacting the police
Strengths for typology — Knowledge gaps answered
Geographic coverage No, only in Chicago
Population coverage
(Broader than homeless)
Yes, samples from medical centers with high numbers of intimate violence
Subgroups available Yes, subgroups include working but still homeless; noncustodial homeless parent; those at-risk providing the ability to examine role of risk and protective factors as they relate to family, work, and physical/emotional health.
Prevention/intervention services (agency involvement) Somewhat, physical and mental health services
Data on children Very limited
Weaknesses Not a representative, national sample and only has one followup with a portion of the original sample
Conclusion Cannot be used for typology — data are not generalizable to national population and the sample size is small

The CWHRS provides additional samples of women at risk for homelessness, as well as those who are homeless, and any transitions they make over the course of 12 months. The study also provides information on women currently being abused that would augment knowledge contributed by the Worcester Family Research Project and the SAMHSA Homeless Families Project. A specific question of interest for reanalysis would be if the help-seeking patterns of those who are homeless differ from individuals who are currently housed. The major drawback is that this is a single-site study with a relatively small sample that therefore is likely not representative of all women being abused.

Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study. The Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (see Table 4-7), also referred to as the Survey of New Parents, follows a birth cohort of new parents and their children over a 5-year period. The purpose of the study is to provide new information on the strengths, conditions, and relationships of unwed parents and how Federal and state policies affect family composition and child well-being.

The study used a three-stage sampling process. First, a stratified random sample of 20 cities was selected from all 77 U.S. cities with 200,000 or more people. The stratification was based on three variables: welfare generosity, the strength of the child support system, and the strength of the labor market (Reichman, Teitler, Garfinkel, McLanahan, 2001). Second, hospitals within cities were sampled, based on the proportion of nonmarital births in the hospitals or, in New York and Chicago, randomly from the pool of hospitals with over 1,000 nonmarital births per year. Third, random samples of both married and unmarried births were selected in each hospital per preset quotas. Samples were designed to be representative of the nonmarital births taking place in each of the 20 cities, but not necessarily to be representative of the marital births, since hospitals were sampled that had the most nonmarital births. Interviews were conducted with both the birth mother and the birth father. The final sample was composed of 3,712 nonmarital births and 1,186 marital births.

Data were collected at baseline, with initial interviews with mothers occurring within 24 hours of the child's birth and with fathers as soon after the birth as possible. Followup interviews were conducted with both parents when the child reached 12, 30, and 48 months. An in-home child assessment was also conducted with the child at 30 and 48 months. Data were collected on current housing situation and residential mobility from both parents at all data collection points and included homelessness as a response option. The data set also included extensive information from both parents on demographics; partner, child, and familial relationships; marriage attitudes; child well-being; the health and development of the child and the respondent; social support; environmental factors; government programs; incarceration; and employment, income, and economic well-being.

Table 4-7. Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study
Sample Stratified random sample of U.S. cities with a population of 200,000 or more, containing samples of families with nonmarital and marital births
Size Approximately 3,800 unwed couples and 1,200 married couples
Timeframe Baseline collected between 1998-2000, followups conducted 1 year, 3 years (not yet available), and 5 years (not yet available)
Housing/homelessness Current housing situation (street, homeless is a choice), various doubled-up population identifiers
Specific housing questions
  • In 1-year followup instrument: Asks the mother what the current housing situation is (answer choices include on the street, homeless); question is also present in the 3-year and 5-year followup
  • What are the reasons that you and the baby’s father are not planning to live together? Answer choice: housing reasons (no place to live)
  • In the past 12 months, did you not pay the full amount of rent or mortgage payments?
  • In the past 12 months, were you evicted from your home or apartment for not paying the rent or mortgage?
  • In the past 12 months, did you move in with other people even for a little while because of financial problems?
  • In the past 12 months, did you stay at a shelter, in an abandoned building, an automobile or any other place not meant for regular housing for even one night?
Demographics Race, education, employment status, of mother and father
Family Followups: Family characteristics, relationships with family members, mother’s family background and support
Service needs Mother’s physical and emotional health; child’s social/emotional/behavioral outcomes, cognitive skills, overall development, academic outcomes, child mental/physical health
Agency/service involvement Baseline: drug treatment; Followup: welfare, employment office, Healthy Start, Head Start
Strengths for typology — Knowledge gaps answered
Geographic coverage Yes, nationally representative sample
Population coverage
(Broader than homeless)
Yes, provides ability to examine subgroups of families from initial development through various changes
Subgroups available Yes, relevant subgroups include working but still homeless, episodically homeless, two-parent homeless families, families that fall back into homelessness; “moderate needs” homeless

Also provides data on those at risk, ability to examine the role of risk and protective factors as they relate to homelessness, family, and work.

Prevention/intervention services (agency involvement) Yes, housing subsidies, welfare, drug treatment
Data on children Yes
Weaknesses Sample size of the literally homeless might be small
Conclusion This sample would definitely inform a typology of homeless families

Of all the data sets identified, this study offers the most promise for informing the typology efforts. For the purposes of this current effort, the project team conducted a reanalysis of the Fragile Families data set, focusing on specific research questions described in Chapter 5, along with the findings from the reanalysis. The data set contains a high-risk sample for homelessness, in that pregnancy is one of the major risk factors found to precede homelessness (Weitzman, 1989) or its reoccurrence (Rog and Gutman, 1997). Because it is a longitudinal panel study, it affords the ability to track families over time into various residences and presumably homelessness, and to examine the role of various other factors in their lives operating as either risk or protective factors. The database has the added benefits of being readily available and national in scope on the nonmarital births, offering some specific city information. Finally, the study contains a wealth of information on children from birth to 5 years and would provide an invaluable comparative perspective on the development of children living in various environments and experiencing different patterns of residential and familial instability.

Welfare, Children, and Families: Three-City Study. This research project is an intensive study of households with children in low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio. The study (see Table 4-8) is designed to better understand the effects of welfare reform on the well-being of children and families, especially as welfare reform evolves. The study has three interrelated components-longitudinal surveys, an embedded development study, and ethnographic studies.

Table 4-8. Welfare, children, and families: Three-city study
Sample Random sample of households with children in low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio
Size Approximately 2,400 households; approximately 256 women
Timeframe Baseline conducted in 1999, first followup in 2000, second followup in 2002
  • What did you do to get by without welfare (answer choice is “went to a shelter”)
  • Doubled-up population identifying question
Specific housing questions
  • What did you do to get by instead of going on welfare? (Answer choice- “went to a shelter”)
  • What did you do to get by when the welfare benefits stopped? (Answer choice “went to a shelter”)
  • During the past two years, did anyone move into your house/apartment because they could not afford their own place to live? (doubled-up population)
  • In the past two years, were you forced to move from a residence or home because you could not afford the rent or mortgage?
  • Does your household pay less rent because the government pays for part, such as Section 8?
Demographics Education, basic demographics
Family Family routines, family background, father involvement, mother-child activities
Service needs Domestic violence, schooling, pregnancies, mother’s emotional and physical well-being
Agency/service involvement Welfare participation
Strengths for typology — Knowledge gaps answered
Geographic coverage No, sampled in only three cities
Population coverage
(Broader than homeless)
Subgroups available Yes, subgroups include episodically homeless, families that fall back into homelessness, those at risk for homelessness
Prevention/intervention services
(agency involvement)
Yes, housing subsidies, welfare
Data on children Yes
Weaknesses Unrepresentative sample
Conclusion Cannot be used for the typology even though the sample identifies homeless families; the sample is nationally unrepresentative

The longitudinal component includes three rounds of interviews with a random sample of 2,400 households selected in 1999 (with an oversampling of welfare families). Each household had a child either between the ages of 0 to 4 or between the ages of 10 to 14 at the time of the baseline interview. Two followup interviews were conducted, one in 2000/01 and the second beginning in 2002. Personal interviews were conducted with the adults and the older children. Assessments were conducted with the younger children. With respect to homelessness, the survey identifies families who indicate that they went to a shelter instead of receiving welfare and those who indicate that they went to a shelter when benefits stopped or were cut. Unfortunately, the code "moving in with others" as a response to either not receiving welfare or what they did after benefits stopped is combined with "moving to cheaper housing;" therefore, a transition can be noted but is not well defined. In addition, data are collected on whether another individual or individuals have moved in with the household because they could not live on their own.

The developmental study includes more intensive testing and evaluation of approximately 700 children aged 2 to 4. This includes videotaping and coding interactions, time-diary studies, and observations of child care settings. Ethnographies are also being conducted in each city, focused on how changes in welfare policy affect the daily lives of welfare-dependent and working poor families; 215 families are to be followed for 4 years.

This study may hold some promise for informing the typology. It will depend on the extent to which people indicate that homelessness, or moving to another residence/being doubled up, are options they chose in order to not receive welfare. It will also depend on how they survived once welfare was terminated. Because these are not direct questions but rather open-ended response options, it is up to the respondent to offer this information. Moreover, it is unlikely in most cases that people moved into shelter to avoid going on welfare or as a direct result of benefits being cut. Doubling-up with others is a more likely result, but it may not happen immediately after welfare is cut; it is more likely that families will weather an eviction or two before moving to other housing or in with family or friends. Thus, the usefulness of these data depends on how valid the responses are and the extent to which the relevant options are used.

Women's Employment Study. The Women's Employment Study (see Table 4-9) consists of a random sample of 874 single mothers who were on the welfare rolls in a Michigan metropolitan area in 1997. Cases were proportionately selected by ZIP Code, race, and age. Eligibility was also restricted to White or Black women who were U.S. citizens and not classified as exempt from work requirements. Four waves of data were collected, generally at 1-year intervals with the baseline conducted in 1997. The purpose of the study is to examine barriers to employment among welfare mothers. In-person interviews cover a comprehensive set of possible barriers, including education; work experience, skills, and readiness; physical health, mental health, and substance abuse problems; family stress; and domestic violence.

Table 4-9. Women’s employment study
Sample Random sample of single welfare mothers who live in a Michigan metropolitan area
Size 753 current and former welfare recipient families
Timeframe 1997-2003; baseline collected 1997, 1-year followup in 1998, 2-year followup in 1999
  • Homelessness
  • Length of homelessness
Specific housing questions
  • Have you ever been homeless? 
  • For how many days or weeks were you homeless?
  • Have you ever been evicted?
  • In the next two months, how much do you anticipate that you and your family will experience actual hardships such as inadequate food, housing, or medical care?
  • Do government programs like Section 8 pay part of housing costs?
Demographics Employment, education
Family Violence in family, births/pregnancies, parent-child interactions, family and relationship outcomes, parenting attitudes, parenting skills
Service needs Child development, substance abuse, emotional and physical well-being
Agency/service involvement Case management, counseling, substance abuse, child protection agencies, domestic violence, or mental health treatment
Strengths for typology — Knowledge gaps answered
Geographic coverage No, only from Michigan
Population coverage
(Broader than homeless)
Yes, sample of single welfare mothers
Subgroups available Yes, subgroups include working but still homeless, episodically homeless, families that fall back into homelessness, moderate needs homelessness, those at-risk
Prevention/intervention services
(agency involvement)
Yes, housing subsidies, CPS, mental health treatment
Data on children Yes
Weaknesses Small, unrepresentative sample
Conclusion Cannot be used for typology; even though homelessness data are collected, the sample is unrepresentative and small.

Key to typology interest is the measurement of housing affordability, residential mobility, and homelessness in the first followup wave. Respondents rated the difficulty of living on their total household income and the likelihood of experiencing hardships such as inadequate housing, food, or medical care in the next 2 months. They also were asked if they had their gas or electricity turned off, had been evicted, or had been homeless since the previous interview. If a respondent indicated that they had been homeless, the amount of time spent homeless was recorded.

Unfortunately, the Women's Employment Study database is not in the public domain at this time. However, since the study has an active research team, additional analyses relevant to the typology may be ongoing or may be solicited. In particular, the study represents another examination of families at risk of becoming homeless and the various factors that place them at risk or that may cause them to fall into homelessness.


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