This paper provides a summary of the literature on the risk factors and characteristics of homeless families and children as well as a synopsis of what has been learned through tested interventions to reduce homelessness, ameliorate its conditions, or prevent its occurrence. The paper highlights the implications of what has been learned for future prevention, intervention, and research efforts.
Overall, research to date has guided us in understanding the factors that heighten a familys vulnerability to homelessness largely resources and life stage and the problems faced by families who experience homelessness. Although certain problems, such as family separations, are greater for homeless families, most of the struggles experienced by homeless families are also experienced by families who are equally poor but remained domiciled. Similarly for children, studies involving both homeless and low-income housed children have consistently uncovered evidence for a poverty-related impact on children, that is, finding that both groups have more problem measures compared to children from non-poverty backgrounds. As such, homelessness serves as an important marker of risk for children. Detecting an additional, homelessness-specific, impact in different realms of child functioning has been more difficult.
What we know about intervening is that subsidies have a strong role in reducing homelessness and helping to end it for families who receive them. There has been much less research on strategies for dealing with risk factors or the struggles families cope with on a day-to-day basis. We need to know more about the housing and services that are needed to match the typology of families that exist. It may be most advantageous to develop interventions from the ground up, examining the needs that families have and understanding the possibilities and constraints in the context of implementing different interventions. This may involve developing a theory of intervention based on what we know about the problems families are experiencing and the realities of what is available or can be made available. Clearly, targeting those most in need of services may be the most efficient and worthwhile approach to addressing psychosocial and substance abuse issues. Data collected thus far suggest that most families may improve over time with limited intervention, but there may be a subset of families living in shelters that require much more intensive interventions than are readily accessible.
The low incidence of homelessness even among those who have limited financial means suggests that there is more efficiency in mounting secondary, versus primary, prevention efforts targeted to families at imminent risk of homelessness. Strategies underway that warrant further study include conflict mediation, financial assistance strategies, and other context-specific strategies. This is not to rule out other prevention efforts, as it is clear that many families are living on the edge and precariously housed, but to acknowledge that prevention of imminent homelessness is likely best focused on those who request shelter.
Finally, more research is needed on the course of homelessness and its effects on families, especially on children. These studies need to strive to focus on broader populations of families (i.e., not just those with specified needs) to provide a greater understanding of the needs of various segments of the population and how they may be best met.