Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Topics for Further Inquiry


There is sparse data concerning some issues on homeless and low-income children. One issue is to better understand homelessness in the context of other adversities that children living in poverty frequently encounter. As mentioned previously, in comparing homelessness to other stressors that children living in poverty may encounter, homelessness is a moderate stressor, not as problematic as exposure to violence but capable of causing mental health and educational problems in children under certain circumstances (Buckner et al., 2004). Future studies to clarify the negative life events and chronic strains that are the most problematic for children would be helpful in targeting treatment resources and preventive efforts to those children living in poverty who are the most in need.

It is also useful to understand factors both internal and external to a child that lead to positive outcomes despite the adversities of poverty. Such findings lend themselves to more strengths-based interventions, which attempt to promote positive factors as opposed to only trying to eliminate risk factors. Two characteristics of children were identified in the Worcester research that were quite useful in distinguishing those who were resilient from those who were not doing as well on multiple indicators of mental health and adaptive functioning (Buckner, Mezzacappa, and Beardslee, 2003). One of these factors, which is external to a child, was parental monitoring. A child whose parent(s) engaged in active awareness of where and with whom there child was on a daily basis tended to exhibit more resilience. Another, even more important, factor distinguishing resilient from nonresilient children was an internal set of cognitive and emotion regulation skills that researchers refer to as “self-regulation.” Self-regulation comprises a set of skills that are invoked in order to accomplish goals, whether they are fairly proximal or distal in nature. In the Worcester study, children high in self-regulation looked much better on measures of mental health, behavior, adaptive functioning, and academic achievement than children low in self-regulation (Buckner, Mezzacappa, and Beardslee, paper in review). Furthermore, those high in self-regulation appeared to be better able to cope with stressors in their lives. Variables such as parental monitoring and self-regulation may offer promising leads for positive or strengths-based interventions to promote resilience in homeless children and other children living in poverty.

An additional area of importance to homeless children for which relatively little is known concerns the issue of children who are separated from their parent(s) due in part to a homeless episode. Such separation is sometimes the choice made by a parent, usually the mother, in deciding the best interests of a child or can be a decision forced upon her by the child welfare system, shelter staff, or relatives (Cowal, Shinn, Weitzman, Stojanovic, and Labay, 2002; Park, Metraux, Brodbar, and Culhane, 2004). Cowal et al. (2002) conducted the most involved investigation to date on this issue. Their study, which took place in New York City during the early 1990s involved 543 poor families, 251 of whom had experienced homelessness at some point in the 5 prior years. They found that 44 percent of the homeless families had had a child separation compared to only 8 percent of low-income never homeless families. Even when accounting for histories of mental health and substance abuse problems as well as domestic violence (directed at the mother), homelessness was strongly associated with a family experiencing such a separation (Cowal et al., 2002). The reasons why the risk of parent-child separation increases when a family becomes homeless is not entirely clear but it is likely there are multiple factors at work. The “fishbowl hypothesis” (Park et al., 2004) posits that shelters scrutinize the parenting practices of adult family members much more so than what they would experience if living in housing, and this poses a risk for child welfare placement. Alternatively, in some cases, a soon-to-be homeless mother will ask that relatives care for a child of hers so that the child can continue attending the same school. In other instances, shelters may not allow adolescents, especially males, to stay in their shelter, thereby forcing a family-child separation.

Looking at this matter of parent-child separation within the parameters of families living in homeless shelters masks an even larger issue because residents of family shelters must include at least one parent and at least one child. What about parents who are separated from their only child or all of their children? They would not be welcomed at a family shelter and instead would be placed in a shelter for “single” adults. Hence, the residents of shelters intended for single adults can and do include some individuals who would otherwise be in a family shelter if they were presently caring for their child(ren). This is borne out in a study conducted in Alameda County, California by Zlotnick, Robertson, and Wright (1999), who interviewed 171 homeless women drawn from a countywide probability sample. Of these women, 84 percent were mothers and 61.5 percent of these homeless mothers had a child under the age of 18 living either in foster care or some other out-of-home placement.

Another topic for future inquiry involves the issue of residential instability as a predictor of adverse outcomes in low-income children. Moving from place to place is certainly a common event for homeless children in the months before and sometimes after a shelter stay, but such residential instability can also be experienced among children who remain in permanent housing and do not ever spend time living in a homeless shelter. The impact that residential instability has on child outcomes is not presently well understood.

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