Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Summary and Discussion of Literature Review


Toward a Typology of Homeless Families: Building on the Existing Knowledge Base
Authors: Debra Rog, C. Scott Holupka, Kelly Hastings, Lisa Patton, Marybeth Shinn

Summary of Presentation. Chapter two of this report summarizes the available literature on homeless families, focusing on what is known about their characteristics, service needs, and service use. According to the literature, homeless families are typically female-headed with an average of two children under five years of age. These families are disproportionately young and members of ethnic minorities. Homeless families have a greater probability of experiencing child separations than nonhomeless families, even when a variety of other factors (e.g., substance abuse) are considered.

Homeless mothers have residential histories marked by mobility and general instability. Compared to other poor mothers, homeless mothers generally have limited education and work histories, are more likely to suffer from health problems despite access to health care, and have similar rates of mental health problems and substance use. Social networks can be an important resource for families but can also be a source of conflict, trauma, and violence. Homeless children also have high rates of health problems. Homeless families, like poor families overall, have high exposure to violence.

Knowledge gaps noted include the need for more research on families from different regions of the country, research on key subgroups, families at risk, moderate needs families, those who fall back into homelessness despite intervention, working homeless families, two-parent families, and families in extended family networks. Longitudinal data are needed on homeless families, as is greater information on the dynamics of their service use and residential history.

Summary of reactions and comments. Panelists concurred with the paper and mentioned additional knowledge gaps, including the need for data on family separations, especially on children who are no longer residing with their mothers. A majority of the panelists agreed that it is important to understand the various reasons, in addition to homelessness, why children can be separated from their mothers. A longitudinal design was recommended for data gathering on potential family separations. It was acknowledged, however, that family separation data can be difficult to accurately obtain as mothers may be hesitant to report the information in fear of child protection services.

Other knowledge gaps noted were data on fathers and fathers' family networks. It is important to note that fathers can enter the criminal justice system and then return to support the family, or the father's family could be an additional asset to the children and mother. More research is also needed on two-parent families and single adults versus married couples. Married couples are more likely to be in shelter, but could potentially be poorer because assets are divided across more individuals.

The importance of clarifying how past research studies have defined homelessness (e.g., whether homelessness is restricted to literally homeless or includes doubled-up situations) was noted as central to having a clear understanding of the literature and its implications for the typology.

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