Homeless Children: Update on Research, Policy, Programs, and Opportunities. Mental health and behavior

05/15/2010

As shown in Table 2 Part C, 11 studies reviewed by Buckner (2005, 2008) examined children’s mental health and behavior. Nine studies used maternal reports of both internalizing symptoms (such as depression and anxiety) and externalizing symptoms (disruptive behavior) on the Child Behavior Checklist. Six studies additionally used child reports of depressive symptoms on the Children’s Depression Inventory; one study included teacher reports and one used a diagnostic interview. All 11 studies found homeless children to experience more mental health and behavioral problems than normative samples of the general population, but only five of nine studies that included housed poor children found homeless children to have more problems than their housed peers. The two studies with the strongest measurement (teacher reports and the diagnostic interview) were among those that found no difference between homeless children and their housed peers. Again, these studies are broadly consistent with the continuum of risk, with a substantial effect of poverty and a more modest additional effect of homelessness on children’s mental health and behavior. There were no consistent differences by age of children studied. Shinn and colleagues (2008) found small differences favoring continuously housed over formerly homeless children five years after the homeless children entered shelter on both maternal report and diagnostic interviews, but the differences were largely accounted for by recent stressors rather than past homelessness.

Table 2:
Summary of Published Homelessness Studies 1987-2005 by Domain (continued)
Part C: Mental Health/Behavior Problems

Publication Location Sample Age (years) Outcomes2 Findings Comments2
2.     CBCL = Child Behavior Checklist; CDI = Children’s Depression Inventory; DISC = Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children
Bassuk & Rubin (1987) MA 156 homeless children 0-18 CBCL, CDI Homeless Children > General Population First study to involve homeless children
Bassuk & Rosenberg (1990) Boston 134 homeless children

81 housed children

0-18 CBCL, CDI, etc. Homeless Children > Housed Low Income Children > General Population Mostly the same homeless sample as Bassuk & Rubin (1987)
Rescorla et al. (1991) Philadelphia  83 homeless children

45 housed / clinic children

3-12 CBCL, etc. Homeless Children > Housed Low Income Children > General Population Homeless children much worse on CBCL than housed peers
Masten et al. (1993) Minneapolis 159 homeless children

62 housed children

8-17 CBCL, CDI Homeless Children = Housed Low Income Children > General Population Multivariate analyses controlled for other explanatory variables
Zima et al. (1994) Los Angeles 169 homeless children 6-12 CBCL, CDI Homeless Children > General Population  
Ziesemer et al. (1994) Madison, WI 145 homeless children

142 housed children

School-age CBCL-Teacher Homeless Children = Housed Low Income Children > General Population Teacher version of CBCL used, not parent version as in the other studies
Schteingart et al. (1995) New York City 82 homeless children

62 housed children

3-5 CBCL Homeless Children = Housed Low Income Children > General Population Multivariate analyses controlled for other explanatory variables
Menke & Wagner (1997) Midwest 134 homeless and housed children 8-12 CBCL, CDI, etc. Homeless Children > Housed Low Income Children > General Population No differences on CBCL
Bassuk et al. (1997) Worcester, MA 77 homeless children

90 housed children

2-5 CBCL Homeless Children > Housed Low Income Children > General Population Multivariate analyses. Difference between homeless/housed on CBCL-Externalizing only
Buckner & Bassuk (1997) Worcester, MA 41 homeless children

53 housed children

9-17 DISC

(DSM-III-R diagnoses)

Homeless Children = Housed Low Income Children > General Population Children age 9 and older in Worcester study. Only study to report DSM diagnoses
Buckner et al. (1999) Worcester, MA  80 homeless children

148 housed children

6-17 CBCL, CDI, etc. Homeless Children > Housed Low Income Children > General Population Multivariate analyses. Difference between homeless/housed on CBCL-Internalizing only

A more recent study (Gewirtz et al., 2008) examined 454 children living in 16 supportive housing programs. Staff had concerns about the psychosocial well-being of 36 percent of the children but, because the study did not use standard measures and had no comparison group, it is hard to know what to make of this percentage. However, the fact that over half of the 100 children age 12–19 had behaved in ways that led to school suspensions would seem to support the staff assessments. Problems in this study increased with the age of the child (Gewirtz et al., 2008). Families of children in this study were eligible for permanent supportive housing because mothers had mental illness, substance abuse problems (most programs), HIV, or experience of domestic violence (one program each), so children were exposed to risks beyond homelessness.

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