Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Studies that Met Primary Selection Criteria


As noted earlier, only two studies meet all four of the primary selection criteria: the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey.

Current Population Survey. The CPS is the main source of labor statistics in the United States. Conducted monthly by the Census Bureau for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CPS typically interviews a nationally representative sample of approximately 50,000 households. Respondents are selected using a national area probability sample. Part of the sample is changed each month; that is, a selected household or address is in the sample for 4 months, taken out for 8 months, put back in for 4 months, and then entirely removed. Given this rotation process, three-fourths of the sample stays the same from one month to the next, and half of the sample is surveyed in the same month from one year to the next. The monthly responses are not linked, however.

The CPS collects information on each member of the selected household aged 15 or older (although published reports focus on people ages 16 or over). Information collected includes data on employment, hours of work, and income, in addition to such demographic characteristics as age, sex, race, marital status, and educational attainment. Supplemental questions are also frequently included with the CPS. The results from each March survey, for example, are used to develop the Annual Demographic Supplement for the U.S. Census. In order to provide an adequate sample to do in-depth analyses of the Latino population, additional Latino sample units are added to the survey in this month.

With approximately 50,000 households selected each month, the CPS provides an opportunity to identify families that have been recently homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless. The broad geographic spread of the survey could help determine rates of homelessness across various regions of the country, as well as differences among urban, suburban, and rural areas. Information obtained over time could also be used to monitor changes in the percentage of families/individuals that have been homeless. In order to provide this sort of information, though, questions would need to be added about recent homeless and housing experiences.

American Community Survey. The ACS is a new survey effort being conducted by the Census Bureau and is designed to replace the long form of the decennial census. The main reason for this change is that the information provided by the long form tends to be increasingly out of date later in the decade. The ACS will enable the Census Bureau to provide more frequently updated information on the same range of topics that are covered in the decennial census.

Respondents for the ACS will be selected using a national area probability sample. Since the ACS is still being field tested, the survey initially included only 800,000 households, and group quarters were excluded from the sample. By 2006, however, group quarters, including emergency homeless shelters, transitional shelters, temporary housing, and hotels or motels used to provide housing for people without conventional shelter, were to be included.8

The ACS is designed to collect the same information as the long form, such as demographic, housing, social, and economic data. Information is obtained on every person in the household. Data for the ACS will be collected using three data collection methods. The first step will be self-administered mail surveys; it is expected that at least half of the responses will be obtained this way. Households that have not responded by mail will then be contacted by telephone. Finally, attempts will be made to conduct in-person interviews with at least a sample of those still remaining.

When it is fully operational, the ACS is expected to collect information on over three million households annually, making it by far the largest survey effort in the country. The sample size of the ACS should be large enough to provide valid annual estimates for every state, as well as all cities, counties, and metropolitan areas with 65,000 people or more. For smaller areas, such as rural areas or individual census tracts, results will have to be aggregated over a 3- to 5-year period to produce a sufficiently large sample.

Prospects for Survey Enhancement. Of the eight national cross-sectional surveys examined and summarized in Table 6-2, only the CPS and the ACS offer benefits for obtaining information on at-risk and literally homeless families. Of these two surveys, the ACS is the more useful for several reasons. First, the ACS has a much larger sample than the CPS. Questions about homelessness and the risk of homelessness added to the ACS would be asked to over three million households annually, while supplemental questions to the CPS would likely be asked only one month a year, to a sample of 50,000 households. Second, the data collection methods used for the ACS are more likely to locate and include precariously housed families, as the survey will eventually include families living in emergency homeless shelters and temporary housing. The data collection procedures used by the CPS provide much less opportunity to locate people who cannot be contacted initially. Finally, the CPS collects a relatively small amount of information compared to the ACS, with a major emphasis on labor force participation that is likely to be less useful in developing a typology of homeless families.

Given these additional considerations, the ACS offers the best prospects for addressing knowledge gaps about homeless families, if it is enhanced. Given its large sample size of over 3 million households a year, for example, the ACS could provide an opportunity to look at homelessness in specific geographic areas, providing an ability to examine how market forces, social capital, and other contextual variables relate to the incidence of family homelessness.

Selection Criteria American Community Survey American Housing Survey Current Population Survey National Health and Nutrition Survey National Health Interview Survey National Household Education Survey National Survey of America's Families National Survey on Drug Use and Health
Table 6-2. Cross-sectional surveys that meet selection criteria for possible enhancement
Surveys still being conducted Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
Sample design and data collection methods less likely to exclude recently homeless and currently unstable families Y No Y Y Y No Y Y
Data collected on family characteristics Y Y Y No Y Y Y No
Sufficient sample size to examine:
  • Subpopulations
  • Regional/state differences
  • Doubled-up
Y Y Y No No Y Y Y
Candidate for enhancement? Y No Y No No No No No

The sampling frame for the ACS already plans to begin to include overnight shelters and other facilities where homeless families could be found. Even if the ACS sample includes only a percentage of families found in the nontraditional housing settings, its large sample should still yield a large absolute number of homeless families that could be examined. Again, using a yearly incidence rate of family homelessness of 1.5 percent (Burt et al., 1999), the ACS could produce a sample of 45,000 homeless households a year. Even at half that rate, there would still be 20,000 to 25,000 homeless households in the sample. Furthermore, because the ACS is still being developed and refined, it may be possible to refine the sampling procedures to better ensure that emergency and transitional shelter facilities that serve homeless families and individuals are part of the sample frame.

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