Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Homeless Families and Children. Factors That Place Families at Risk of Homelessness


Ethnicity. Homeless families are more likely than poor families, and both are substantially more likely than the general population, to be members of minority groups, in particular African Americans (Lowin et al., 2001; Rossi et al., 1987; Susser, Lin, & Conover, 1991; Rog et al, 2007; Rog & Holupka, unpublished; Whaley, 2002). This is also true of single adults who are homeless. For example, in the NSHAPC, 62 percent of families and 59 percent of single adults, compared to 24 percent of the general population, were members of minority groups (Burt et al., 1999). However, the particular minorities represented vary from city to city. Their race and ethnicity reflect the composition of the city in which they reside, with minority groups invariably disproportionately represented (Breakey et al., 1989; DErcole & Struening, 1990; Rog et al., 1995a; Shinn, Knickman, & Weitzman, 1991; Lowin et al., 2001).

Resources. The incomes of mothers who are homeless are significantly below the federal poverty level (Bassuk, Buckner et al., 1996,1997; Rog et al., 1995b; Shinn & Weitzman, 1996). Homeless familiesincomes are slightly higher than homeless single adults due to families having greater access to means-tested benefit programs such as TANF and more help from relatives and friends. Nonetheless, homeless families incomes are almost always too low for the families to obtain adequate housing without subsidies (Burt et al., 1999). In the Worcester Family Research Project (WFRP), a study of 436 homeless and low-income housed single-parent female-headed families, more than half earned less than $8,000 per year, placing them at 63 percent of the poverty level for a family of three (Bassuk et al., 1996). Similarly, in the NSHAPC the median income in 1996 for a homeless family was only $418 per month, or 41 percent of the poverty line for a family of three (Burt et al., 1999).

In a recent reanalysis of the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being dataset focused on families living at 50 percent or below of the poverty level conducted as part of a larger project designed to inform a typology of homeless families (Rog et al, 2007), those families who remained residentially stable over three years without experiencing risk factors for homelessness (e.g., having utilities shut off) were more likely to have relatively higher incomes and have received housing assistance and to be living with a partner who was working. Having other adults living in the household appears to increase a mothers likelihood of remaining instable housing.

Findings about the role of social networks of homeless families are mixed. Several studies have found that mothers in the midst of an episode of homelessness, compared to low-income housed women, have less available instrumental and emotional support, less frequent contact with network members, and more conflicted relationships (Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1988; Bassuk et al., 1996; Culhane, Metraux, & Hadley, 2001; Passero, Zax, & Zozus,1991). One qualitative study found that the lack or withdrawal of support was a key factor in families becoming homeless (McChesney, 1995), but another study (Goodman, 1991) found no differences in support between homeless and housed mothers. In contrast Shinn, Knickman, and Weitzman (1991) found that newly homeless mothers report more recent contact with network members than low-income housed mothers, and over three-quarters had stayed with network members before turning to shelter. Moreover, more recent analysis of that dataset (Toohey, Shinn, & Weitzman, 2004) found that five years later the social networks of the (now) formerly homeless mothers in this sample were quite similar to those of their housed counterparts. Differences in study findings may be related to the timing of interviews of the mothers  in the months prior to a homelessness episode, a mothers contact with network members may increase, whereas by the time a mother and her children enter shelter, she may have depleted most of her social network resources.

There is some evidence that conflict in social support networks maybe related to poorer symptoms and outcomes for families. In the WFRP, homeless mothers had smaller social networks that comprised nonprofessionals and reported more conflicted relationships in their networks than did housed women. Therefore, large social networks emerged as a protective factor for homelessness, but having a network marked by interpersonal conflict was a risk factor for homelessness (Bassuk, Buckner et al., 1997). Conflict with family and friends, especially sibling conflict, was related to impaired mental health (Bassuket al., 2002). Similarly, in the recent CMHS/CSAT Homeless Families Program involving mothers with psychiatric and/or substance abuse issues, mothers reporting conflict in their networks over the course of a 15-month follow-up showed less improvement in a number of outcomes  including mental health symptoms and functioning, trauma, and substance abuse, regardless of the type of intervention they received (Rog, Buckner et al., in press; Sacks et al., in press; Pearson et al., in press).

Young Children and Pregnancy. Not only are homeless families overwhelmingly headed by women, but they are disproportionately families with young (pre-school) children. The risk for homelessness is highest  and higher than the general population rate  among families with children under the age of six. Furthermore, the risk increases for younger children, with the highest rate of risk among families with children under the age of one year (infants), as approximately 4.2 percent of infants were homeless in 1995 (Culhane & Metraux, 1999). Having young children may place parents at a competitive disadvantage in terms of holding a job and being able to afford housing.

Pregnancy itself is a risk factor for homelessness (Shinn et al., 1998).In a comparison of homeless public assistance families in NewYork with a sample of housed families on public assistance, 35 percent of the homeless women were pregnant at the time of the study and 26 percent had given birth in the past year, while only 6 percent of the housed group were pregnant and 11 percent had given birth recently (Weitzman, 1989).

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