Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Theoretical Background


Typologies are ubiquitous in the social sciences.  They are frequently used to help provide clarity and improve understanding of a given population, situation, or pattern of social organization.  They are not designed to capture all subtle variation in a given context, but function as a heuristic device to provide theoretical clarity to help formulate basic understanding.  As one might expect, some typologies are more helpful than others.

In the homelessness literature, the event of becoming homeless is frequently differentiated along a single causal dimension: individual versus structural explanations.  Individual explanations include those micro-characteristics that reside within people, such as physical and mental health, substance abuse and addiction, domestic violence, and educational attainment, among others.  Structural explanations include those macro-characteristics beyond the individual, such as lack of affordable housing, slack labor markets, and the availability of homeless shelters, among others.

The individual-structural homelessness typology represents an overly simplified version of general typologies found in the social science poverty literature. For the past fifty years, poverty scholars have conceptualized poverty as a function of social structure, culture and individual behavior.  Social structure (sometimes referred to as structural causes) includes macro-economic and social constraints thought to block economic opportunity, including changes in the labor market, discrimination, and lack of access to educational opportunities. These constraints interact with and produce cultural adaptations, including beliefs, values and strategies for daily living, that sometimes reinforce the effects of these structural barriers or create cultural adaptations that help individuals overcome these barriers.  The interaction between structural and cultural dimensions is thought to shape individual behavior which predisposes certain people and groups to poverty (for a more detailed treatment of this conceptual framework, see Rainwater, 1987; Wilson, 1987; and Newman, 1992).

The role of culture in the homelessness literature is not well developed. However, it tends to be equated with access to and willingness to receive informal help from friends family, and strangers, as well as the changes in belief systems that may be associated with illegal activity, drug use, and mental illness where these conditions are thought to mediate individual behavior that puts an individual or group at greater risk of being homeless.

The individual-structural dichotomy can be complicated by introducing the idea that some factors at both the micro- and macro-levels are associated with increased risk of becoming homeless, while other protective factors may reduce the likelihood of becoming homeless.  Risk versus protective factors can be further distinguished as distal or proximate.  That is, those events and conditions at the micro- and macro-levels can take place early in life (distal) and are distinct from those that take place later in life (proximate) (Bassuk et al, 1997).  So, it is possible to think of distal and proximate factors that increase the risk of being homeless or help protect against homelessness at the individual- and structural-levels.

This approach is useful for untangling the complex social problem of homelessness, but it tends to reinforce the way in which the debate on homelessness (including family homelessness) has unfolded.  Most of the data used to test this typology can only speak to one dimension.  That is, it focuses on either the micro- or macro-level and it rarely accounts for risks and protective factors that are proximate and distal to homelessness spells.  As a result, we know a great deal about each discrete cell in this typology, but we have very little empirical work that explores the relative influence of individual versus structural factors, risk versus protective factors, and distal versus proximate factors.  This has shaped the scholarly debate around homelessness into finite findings that investigate a segment of the original theoretical approach.  So, we know individual factors are associated with family homelessness, but we do not know whether these relationships hold when controlling for structural conditions. Similarly, we know that structural conditions matter, but we do not know whether these relationships remain robust when controlling for individual distal and proximate protective factors of informal social support. 

Overall, the homelessness literature is fragmented and overly deterministic without adequate data to support global statements about what causes this social problem.  More important, this fragmentation has created a very confusing picture to public policy makers and others interested in fighting family homelessness, since it is hard to tell from the literature what policy levers really matter and will produce the greatest effect on pushing down the number of poor mothers and children living on the street or in shelters.   As a result, the social science literature on homelessness has been unable to offer coherent and comprehensive knowledge that can effectively shape the policy debate.

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