Homeless Children: Update on Research, Policy, Programs, and Opportunities. Cumulative risk


Researchers often attempt to single out the unique effects of particular stressors on various aspects of children’s well-being. However, there exist many different types of negative events that children living in poverty can experience, making it difficult to examine their effects individually. Moreover, the conditions just described often co-occur in the lives of homeless children. Masten and colleagues (1993) described the count of significant negative life events a child has dealt with as cumulative risk. Researchers have typically found that such counts are more predictive of children’s outcomes than homelessness per se. This is not surprising as indices of cumulative risk capture a much broader array of adversities that children living in poverty can experience than just homelessness per se. Similarly, Buckner, Beardslee, and Bassuk (2004), who followed up families after they were re-housed, found that negative life events, particularly exposure to violence in the home and the community, were more important to children’s mental health than prior homelessness. This is not to argue that the effects of homelessness on children are inconsequential. However, it is important to remember that homelessness is but one of many major adversities that children living in poverty can experience and is often time limited. Living in a dangerous neighborhood and intermittently witnessing or being the victim of violence can be an even more chronic stressor than homelessness and can have more enduring effects on children's social-emotional functioning.

Finally, Shinn and colleagues (2008), who examined formerly homeless and continuously housed children five years after the former group entered shelter, found recent life events and proximal stressors reported by the mother (current economic stressors, current maternal depressive symptoms, perceived lack of safety in the current neighborhood) were more important than distal stressors (over the past five years or in the last year) or prior homelessness to children’s mental health.

Wachs and Evans (2010) conceptualize all of the conditions described here and other forms of instability as manifestations of chaos, having a profound effect on children’s lives. Just as lack of stimulation can impede development, unpredictable and uncontrollable settings may have adverse physiological consequences, interfere with children’s self-regulation and sense of efficacy, impair the quality of parenting they receive, and impede their ability to regulate external demands and acquire a sense of order and continuity.

While it would be a mistake to assume that the lives of most homeless families in America are chaotic, it can be difficult for parents to provide stability and routines for their children without a secure residence. Families who double up with others; live in hotels, motels, or shelters; or live in campgrounds, vehicles, or other places not designed for human habitation must struggle to provide a sense of stability and security for their children. Homeless families living doubled up with others live in a more normalized setting, but it cannot be assumed they are at lower risk without research. Homeless families living in shelter at least have the advantage of being better linked to the social service system than families living doubled up in the community.

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