Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Homeless Families and Children. Research on Children Who Are Homeless


Understanding the specific homeless experience and its impact.  Research conducted to date on children who are homeless has illuminated a fair amount of knowledge on current needs and the impact of homelessness. It would be desirable for future research to address aspects of the homelessness experience that are particularly detrimental to children (Buckner, 2004b). This could help refine the question from whether homelessness has an effect to what aspects of homelessness are prone to creating problems in what age groups and in what domains. Shelter conditions are probably an especially important factor in moderating the impact of homelessness for a child and research is needed in this area. No doubt, this would be a challenging task and most previous studies have likely not encountered sufficient variability in shelter conditions to examine such issues. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that there are important qualities of shelters that may worsen or buffer a childs experience while living there. These could include the amount of privacy accorded to families, the crowdedness of the facility, the extent to which rules are strictly enforced, the warmth and skill level of shelter staff, the size of the facility, its location, and whether families are asked to leave during the day or may remain on the premises.

In addition, it would be useful to clarify the relative impact that homelessness can have on children in relation to a wider range of negative life events and chronic strains that children living in poverty experience. This would be helpful in better targeting treatment resources and preventive efforts to those low-income children (homeless and housed) most in need.

Research on subgroups of children who are homeless.  Likewise, further research on whether there are special subgroups of homeless children with needs would help to determine whether it makes sense to more narrowly target intervention and treatment resources to select children living in shelters. Most of the research to date on children who are homeless has taken a variable-centered approach to analyses, focusing on specific areas such as mental health, behavior, and academic performance. Little if any attention has been paid to whether there are subgroups of children with quite different patterns of functioning across these areas of domains.One study that did employ a person-centered approach (Huntington, Buckner, & Bassuk, in press) used cluster analysis to determine whether preschool and school-age homeless children could be classified into subgroups based on measures of behavior problems, adaptive functioning, and achievement. Interestingly, two very distinct subgroups were found within each age category: children who were doing reasonably well across each of the three domains (behavior, adaptive functioning, and achievement), and children who were consistently evidencing worse problems or lower functioning in these realms. These results warrant replication in other settings but suggest that children who are homeless, when compared across indices of functioning, are not a homogenous group.

Intervention research.  Very little progress has been made in determining effective interventions that specifically target children who are homeless. Evaluations of the impact on children of interventions that primarily focus on the mother as the recipient of services have yet to yield promising leads. If homeless children are to benefit, it is likely that more child-centric intervention strategies will need to be developed and tested.

Parent-child separation.  Parent-child separation is an important area that needs further research. The factors that account for child separation from families prior to shelter entrance need to be better delineated. Also, the effects of such separation on children have yet to be investigated. Mostly due to logistical reasons, research on homeless children to date has focused entirely on children who remain with their parents and have not included children who have been separated.

Resilience.  It is also worthwhile to understand factors both internal and external to a child that lead to positive outcomes despite the adversities of poverty. Such findings lend themselves to more strengths-based interventions that attempt to promote positive factors as opposed to trying only to eliminate risk factors. Buckner, Mezzacappa, and Beardslee (2003) found two characteristics of homeless and low-income children in Worcester that distinguished those who were resilient from those who were not doing nearly as well on multiple indicators of mental health and adaptive functioning. One of these factors was parental monitoring. A child whose parent(s) engaged in active awareness of where and with whom their child was on a daily basis tended to exhibit more resilience. Another, even more important, variable distinguishing resilient from non-resilient children was an internal set of cognitive and emotional regulation skills that researchers refer to as self-regulation (Baumeister & Vohs, 2004). Self-regulation helps an individual accomplish both short and longer term goals and can be important in coping effectively with stress. In the WFRP, children high in self-regulation looked much better across measures of mental health, behavior, adaptive functioning, and academic achievement than children low in self-regulation (Buckner, Mezzacappa, & Beardslee, n.d.). Furthermore, those high in self-regulation appeared to be better able to cope with stressors in their lives. Variables such as parental monitoring and self-regulation offer promising leads for strengths-based interventions to promote resilience in homeless and other low-income children.

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