Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Typology Efforts


As previously characterized, the emphasis on research to date involving homeless children has been to discern the nature and extent of impact that homelessness can have on children. Referring back to Figure 1-1, studies have tried to identify and quantify, to some extent, a homelessness-specific effect on children above and beyond a poverty-related impact. Because of this focus, much less is understood about homeless children themselves in terms of having different constellations of needs. For instance, studies of homeless children typically use measures of central tendency when summarizing results rather than focusing on a range (or extremes) in outcomes. There is work to be done on better understanding the needs of subgroups of homeless children who have significant problems in one realm and/or across different dimensions of functioning. For instance, it could be the case that a subgroup of homeless children with demonstrable needs require much more in the way of services than they are presently receiving while in shelter; whereas other homeless children, those with fewer problems, do not stand to benefit from the services than they presently getting. A better understanding of this issue would help in allocating preventive and treatment services for homeless children in the most sensible manner possible.

The studies that have been conducted to date on homeless children can be characterized as having predominantly taken a variable-centered approach to analyses. In other words, variables in specific domains (e.g., CBCL scores as indices of mental health and problem behaviors; academic achievement scores; indices of developmental status) are highlighted. In such analyses, little if any attention is paid to how, for instance, there may be subgroups of children with quite different patterns in the type and severity of their problems or needs. In contrast, a person-centered approach to data analysis (e.g., cluster analysis) would be needed to empirically identify different subgroups of children based on a range of outcome measures.17 Fortunately, the data sets of many existing studies of homeless children could be reexamined to better understand these different clusterings, but it would require a person-centered approach to data analyses. Little, if any, work in this area has been done to date, for the simple reason that it has not been a question that researchers have been trying to address (at least in the published literature), although it could have been examined. Nonetheless, those data sets from studies of homeless children that have a range of relevant outcome measures could be analyzed using cluster analytic and other person-centered procedures to rather readily identify subgroups based on problems or needs.

What are some of the things that might be found by looking at how problems in homeless children cluster together? Internalizing and externalizing mental health problems co-occur as can be seen in the high correlations (r = .40 - .50) between CBCL indices as well as in children who come to an outpatient clinic presenting with disruptive behavior problems and with internalizing issues (e.g., a child who is acting out but also manifests symptoms of depression and anxiety). In terms of how school-age children present with problems, it is common to see co-occurring difficulties in the realms of mental health and academic functioning, although it is difficult to discern if one is the cause of the other (e.g., is a child doing poorly in school because she is depressed or is her low self-esteem and dysphoric mood the result of poor academic performance?). Most of the time, mental health issues and academic performance influence each other in a reciprocal manner.

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