Research has shown that homeless families are heterogeneous in terms of their needs, their pathways into homelessness and their experience of it. They are typically from a larger population of poor families, where housing is precarious. Homelessness in families is largely a temporary state, which is encouraging, but memories of experiences in shelter, hunger, lack of privacy and impermanence remain. The average length of time for any one episode of family homelessness is 30 days, but repeat episodes are common. At-risk families frequently move from homelessness to shelter to a doubled-up situation back to shelter and then return to homelessness. There is anecdotal evidence that the recent economic downturn has increased the number of homeless children seeking McKinney-Vento-funded services, although there is no research on this group of homeless children.
There are many risk factors for homelessness, including poverty, single mother-headed families, history of foster care, exposure to violence, and food insecurity. The risks are cumulative; the more risk factors a family has, the more likely the family is to experience homelessness. The number of risk factors may be more important than homelessness itself. Research has shown variability in how children respond to these risks. It has also shown that poverty itself, especially persistent poverty, has a number of other negative consequences, including impaired cognitive development, poor physical and mental health, and behavior problems.
On the other hand, some children are more resilient than others in the face of adversity. More research is needed to understand risk and resilience among children experiencing homelessness. Promising interventions have been identified that bolster resilience in children and offer protection from negative academic and behavioral outcomes associated with homelessness.
Homeless children experience significant mobility that can result in frequent changes in schools, despite McKinney-Vento protections. Changing schools frequently can impact academic performance, and exacerbate physical and mental health and behavioral problems. In addition, crowding (in shelter or in doubled-up situations) can be a cause of distress, aggression and other behavioral issues, as well as poor outcomes in school and lower cognitive competency.