Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Summary of Implications From the Literature Review


The research studies conducted on homeless families have largely focused on the characteristics and needs of homeless mothers and their children (Bassuk and Rosenberg, 1988; Wood et al., 1990; Goodman, 1991a, 1991b; Shinn et al., 1998; Weitzman et al., 1992; Rog et al., 1995a, 1995b; Bassuk, 1996; Rossi, 1989). As already noted, these studies and others that have contributed to the literature vary considerably in the definitions used, the samples selected, the designs used, and the study domains examined. Few are longitudinal in nature, only a handful use comparison groups of other poor women to contextualize the results, and the geographic areas involved are limited.

Despite the differences among these studies, this small body of research has produced the following consistent findings:

  • Homeless families are almost always headed by a single woman who on average is in her late 20s with approximately two children, one or both under 6 years of age;
  • Families at greatest risk of homelessness, as well as poverty in general, belong to ethnic minority groups;
  • Homelessness is highly linked to family separations, including foster care and involvement with child welfare services;
  • Homeless mothers have significant human capital needs, with insufficiencies in education, employment history, and income;
  • Homelessness may exhaust the social networks that some families have and may also be the source of conflict, trauma, and violence;
  • Families who become homeless often have residential histories marked by considerable mobility and instability;
  • Homeless mothers report high rates of health problems but also report high rates of access to health care;
  • Mental health problems for homeless mothers mirror those of poor women in general and are largely unmet;
  • Substance abuse reports for homeless mothers, though likely underestimates, are higher than for other women in poor families but lower than for single homeless adults;
  • Children in homeless families also have high rates of acute and chronic health problems, and the majority have been exposed to violence; and
  • The long-term effects of homelessness on children's behavior may be less than expected, but the effects on school performance appear significant and long-lasting.

Significant gaps in knowledge continue to make it difficult to know the external validity of the current base of knowledge. These gaps include the following:

  • Knowledge of homeless families across the country, especially in Midwestern, Southern, and rural areas;
  • Key population groups, including families at risk for homelessness; moderate-need families; families who fall back into homelessness after receiving interventions; families who are working but continue to be homeless; two-parent families; families living in extended family networks; and single homeless adults who are noncustodial parents; and
  • Understanding the course of residential instability and homelessness over several years and the factors that influence this course (including individual factors, contextual factors, and intervention factors).

The review of the literature suggests that a great deal is known about homeless families and their needs. There are ranges of health, mental health, child welfare, substance abuse, and other service needs and involvement, though little is known about the various responses to interventions in these areas. The literature provides guidance in the variables that may be important to include in developing a typology and the specific measures that may be most valid.

The lack of comprehensive population coverage indicates that other efforts need to be made to develop a meaningful typology. Because little is known about families prior to entering homelessness or after they leave shelter, and less is known about specific subgroups of the broader population, initial steps in conceptualizing a typology need to consider how to fill these gaps in knowledge.

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