Homelessness among families continues to be an all too common occurrence in our nation. Beginning in the early1980s, families with young children began to appear at shelters intended for single adults and quickly became a fast-growing segment of the homeless population. The best estimate is that families comprise 34 percent of the homeless population (23 percent children and 11 percent adults) on any given night (Burt et al., 1999). In a given year, this translates to about 420,000 families, including 924,000 children, experiencing homelessness in the United States. By extrapolation, about 1.8 percent of all families in this country spend at least one night homeless over the course of a year (Urban Institute, 2000). Among just low-income families, about 8 percent of households and 9 percent of children have been homeless during the past year. It is also believed that many more families are precariously housed, in doubled-up situations or in substandard housing.
It is important to recognize that there is a structural imbalance creating homelessness that helps to explain both geographic and temporal differences in rates of homelessness. The nature of the crisis in affordable housing varies from place to place. For example, the examination of worst case housing needs indicates that the suburbs experienced the greatest losses in units affordable to extremely low-income families in the 1990s as a consequence of growth in population and jobs (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2000). Shortages in affordable housing and differences in fair market rents also vary geographically. Fair market rents, even averaged across entire states, are over twice as high in some states as in others; local variation is much greater (Pitcoff et al., 2003). In addition, the extent to which public housing and other housing assistance is available may have a role in explaining this variation. Recent analyses of the Fragile Families database, which comprises an at-risk sample of families from communities across the country whose mothers have recently given birth, reveals that among families living below 50 percent of the poverty level, homelessness is related to having no housing assistance or having lost that assistance or public housing. Residential stability among those in the poverty sample is strongly predicted by having or gaining public housing (Rog & Holupka, unpublished). Families living at the bottom rung of the income ladder have inadequate incomes to pay the fair market rents in literally all communities. Therefore, the role that the lack of affordable housing plays in creating the structural backdrop for why homelessness occurs points to its fundamental importance in creating long term solutions for preventing homelessness among families as well as individuals.
Even within the same locale, the characteristics of homeless families can change over time. Weinreb et al. (2006) recently compared the characteristics of two samples of similarly enrolled homeless families in Worcester, Massachusetts, based on studies conducted in the early 1990s and early 2000s. Demographic characteristics were fairly similar between the two samples. However, compared to the 1993 sample, homeless families in the 2003 study were poorer (adjusted for the effects of inflation) and reported more physical health limitations; psychological distress; and mental health disorders, especially major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The most noteworthy finding was a fourfold higher rate of current depression in the 2003 study as compared to the earlier investigation. Reasons for this increase are unclear and the finding merits replication in other settings to determine whether it is part of a broader trend.