Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Homeless Families and Children. Research on the Characteristics and Needs of Homeless Families and Children: Summary of the Methodological Context and Key Findings


The body of research on homeless families has grown, though not dramatically, since the mid-1990s. More has been learned about the size and characteristics of homeless families, especially compared to equally low-income families who remain domiciled. Several key studies (Shinn et al., 1998; Rog et al., 1995a; Bassuk et al., 1996) had begun reporting results prior to the 1998Symposium, though analyses continued. Two additional large studies were conducted following the Symposium: (1) the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC), directed by Burt and colleagues (1999), which has contributed to our knowledge of basic characteristics of homeless families across the nation, and (2) analyses of administrative data sets in New York City and Philadelphia by Culhane and colleagues (1999), which have improved our understanding of families use of shelter and the interconnection of homelessness with involvement in other services and systems.

Several more recent studies that are adding to the literature on the characteristics of families (some with publications underway or in press) include the evaluation of the five-year CMHS/CSAT Homeless Families Program (Rog, Rickards et al., in press); a secondary analysis of the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being dataset (Reichman et al., 2001) focused on comparing families at different levels of residential instability (Rog et al., 2007); and examinations of housing problems experienced by recipients of child welfare services (Courtney, McMurtry, & Zinn, 2004; Park et al., 2004).

With respect to homeless children in particular, the first studies were conducted in the mid- to late 1980s, not long after the issue of homelessness among families became apparent. The findings from these initial studies helped spawn a second generation of research studies on homeless children that were conducted in the early to mid-1990s (cf. Bassuk, Weinreb et al, 1997; Buckner & Bassuk, 1997; Buckner et al., 1999; Buckner, Bassuk, & Weinreb,2001; Garcia Coll et al., 1998; Masten et al., 1993; Rafferty, Shinn, & Weitzman, 2004; Rubin et al., 1996; Schteingart et al., 1995; Weinreb et al., 1998; Zeismer, Marcoux, & Marwell, 1994). These studies were funded by the federal government (e.g., the National Institute of Mental Health), private foundations, and other agencies. A chief aim of many of these investigations was to further clarify the impact of homelessness on children. Compared to the earlier studies, these latter projects enrolled more study participants, included a greater breadth and quality of assessment instruments, and employed more advanced statistical techniques with which to analyze data.

The studies on homeless families and children have varied in definitions used, study designs, participant selection, and geographic context, all of which have contributed to differences and inconsistencies among the studies. In addition, examining and synthesizing the findings of studies over time is confounded by historical and structural changes in housing, improvements in shelter conditions over time (especially when examining the effects of homelessness on children), and effects of programs implemented through theMcKinney-Vento Act (such as the educational programs serving as a buffer for children). Few studies have been longitudinal, only several have used comparison groups of other low-income families to contextualize the results, and the geographic areas have been limited.

Despite these limitations, the small body of emergent research has provided insights into the risk factors associated with family homelessness, the housing and service needs of homeless families and children, and the impact of homelessness on children. Among the most consistent findings are:

  • The most common profile of a homeless family is one headed by a single woman in her late 20s with approximately two children, one or both under 6 years of age; those at greatest risk belong to ethnic minority groups.
  • In the Northeast the vast majority of homeless families are headed by single-parent females (Bassuket al., 1996), while in other parts of the country there is a greater mix, with a modest percentage being two-parent families or families headed by a single father (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005).
  • The residential histories of homeless families typically reveal high mobility and instability, including living in a variety of doubled up and own housing arrangements.
  • Family separations area common occurrence, both before and after the homelessness episode.
  • Homeless families are typically extremely poor, and mothers who are homeless lack human capital  useful skills and abilities  with respect to both education and employment.
  • Conflict, trauma, and violence figure prominently in the lives of homeless families, as they do with equally poor but domiciled families.
  • The health of mothers who are homeless is often poorer than the health of mothers who are domiciled, but mothers who are homeless typically report high rates of access to healthcare; in contrast, their mental health problems are comparable in rate and nature (e.g., typically depression) to poor women in general, and are typically unmet.
  • Reports of substance abuse, though likely underestimates, are higher for mothers who are homeless than for other women in poor families, but lower than for single adults who are homeless.
  • Both homeless and low-income housed children experience the negative effects of broad poverty-related adversities. Study findings suggest that although homelessness itself can have an additional detrimental impact on childrens mental health, physical health, and school performance, particularly in the short term, the effects tend to dissipate over time once children are rehoused.

View full report


"report.pdf" (pdf, 281.54Kb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®