Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Homeless Families and Children. What is the Toll of Homelessness on Children Living With Their Families?


The year 1987 marked the beginning of published studies that focused on homeless children living with their families. Four years later, a sufficient amount of research had been conducted to warrant a review article by Rafferty and Shinn(1991). This first generation of research on homeless children called attention to a growing number of youngsters who were living in shelters and clearly at risk for developing problems. Unlike the studies of families that sought to understand what placed certain families at greater risk of homelessness, the focus of these studies was to determine the impact of homelessness on children. The early investigations documented demonstrable problems that children were having in various areas of functioning, such as health, developmental status, mental health and behavior, and academic performance (cf. Alperstein, Rappaport, & Flanigan, 1988; Bassuk & Rubin, 1987; Miller & Lin, 1988; Rescorla, Parker, & Stolley, 1991; Wood et al., 1990).

As noted earlier, the findings from these initial studies helped spawn a second generation of studies on homeless children, funded by a variety of public and private sources, 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). As a group, these studies were stronger due to greater sample sizes and improved methodology. Again, their dominant focus was to further an understanding of the impact of homelessness on various dimensions of child functioning.

This second wave of studies on homeless children did not generate as clear a pattern of results as the first set of investigations. The most consistent and uniform finding across these studies was the detection of elevated problems among both homeless and low-income housed children compared to children in the general population (using normative data). This appears to be due to the effects of poverty-related risk factors that low-income children, whether currently homeless or in housing, have in common. What was not consistently found across this second wave of studies was an additional elevation in problems among homeless children in comparison to low-income housed children. In other words, these latter studies seldom found negative effects in children that could be attributable to the experience of homelessness, per se.

Impact on mental health and behavior.  At least seven publications since 1993 have examined the impact of homelessness on the mental health and behavior of children. Of these studies, Masten et al. (1993) in Minneapolis, Ziesemer et al. (1994) in Madison, Wisconsin, and Schteingart et al. (1994) in New York City reported no differences between homeless study participants and their low-income housed counterparts on various indices of mental health, principally the Child Behavior CheckList (CBCL) and the Childrens Depression Inventory.

In the WFRP, Bassuk, Weinreb et al. (1997) found that homeless preschool-age children had higher elevated externalizing problem behaviors (e.g., aggressive behavior) as measured by the CBCL than low-income housed children, but did not find significant differences on the internalizing (e.g., depressive, anxious, and withdrawn behavior) subscale. Conversely, Buckner et al. (1999) found the opposite among school-age children in the Worcester study (significantly worse scores for homeless children on the internalizing subscale of the CBCL but not on the externalizing subscale). Assessing mental health problems in a diagnostic manner using DSM-III-R criteria, Buckner and Bassuk (1997) found that homeless and low-income children age 8 years and older in the Worcester study had nearly identical current prevalence rates for psychiatric disorders (about 32 percent), a rate much higher than the 19 percent prevalence found among children in the general population (Shaffer et al., 1996). So, while these second-generation studies of homeless children documented a poverty-related effect on childrens mental health/behavior (i.e., data on low-income children, whether homeless or housed, looked worse than normative data), effects due specifically to homelessness-related factors were much harder to detect.

Impact on education-related problems.  There has been a somewhat more consistent pattern of findings across studies in the realm of education-related problems and outcomes. When the crisis of family homelessness emerged in the 1980s, most school systems were unprepared to deal with the complex needs of homeless children. Many homeless children were denied access to education, with school districts claiming that families living in shelter did not meet permanent residency requirements and therefore were not eligible for enrollment (Rafferty, 1995). Other impediments to school attendance included immunization requirements, availability of records, and transportation to and from school (Stronge, 1992). If homelessness causes children to miss school, such absence will likely be detrimental to their academic performance. As part of the Stewart B. McKinney Homelessness AssistanceAct, which Congress passed in 1987, the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program was established to ensure that homeless children had the same access to public education as other children.

Studies of homeless children conducted prior to and shortly after the creation of the EHCY program have consistently documented disrupted school attendance and academic under performance (Bassuk & Rubin, 1987; Masten et al., 1993; Masten et al., 1997; Rafferty, Shinn, & Weitzman, 2004; Rubin et al., 1996; Zima, Wells, & Freeman, 1994). Since then, the EHCY program has provided formula grants to state educational agencies to review and revise policies that may act as barriers to school enrollment and attendance in addition to funding direct services such as transportation and tutoring.

Anderson, Janger, and Panton (1995) conducted a national evaluation of theEHCY program and found that over 85 percent of homeless children and youth were regularly attending school, indicating a marked improvement in school access compared to pre-EHCY program attendance rates. Similarly, Buckner, Bassuk, and Weinreb (2001) found no evidence of higher school absenteeism or lower academic achievement scores among homeless school-age children in the Worcester study as compared to low-income housed children. Children in each group had missed an average of six days of school in the past year and scores on a composite measure of academic achievement were identical for both groups. Rates of school suspension, grade retention, and special classroom placement were actually higher in the housed comparison group. This lack of differences in the Worcester study on school- and education-related variables suggests that the EHCY program has been successfully implemented in that city, as evidenced by similar absenteeism rates between the homeless and housed school-age children. What this study illustrates is that the ability of researchers to detect an effect of homelessness on children may depend in part on the historical context; that is, the timing of the study in relation to the societal response that has arisen to address the problem.

Impact on development.  This inconsistency in study results concerning the impact of homelessness extends to findings on the cognitive and motor development of young homeless children. Two of the three studies that have addressed this domain are first-generation studies and the third, a second-generation project. The first two studies (Wood et al., 1990: Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1990) found a greater proportion of developmental delays among the homeless preschool children than comparison groups of low-income housed children. Both used the Denver Developmental Screening Test, an instrument that focuses on reports about the child by a parent or guardian. The third study (Garcia Coll et al., 1998) employed the gold standard measure of developmental status in infants and young children, the Bayley Scales of Infant Development, which involves direct observation and interaction with a child by a tester who has undergone specialized training. In contrast to the earlier two studies, Garcia Collet al. found no differences in developmental status between homeless and low-income housed infants/toddlers on the Bayley. Moreover, scores on theVineland Screener (a measure of adaptive behavior that asks a parent about a childs communication, daily living, socialization and motor skills) were almost identical between the two groups.

Impact on health.  The studies of Alperstein, Rappaport, and Flanigan (1988) in New York City and Miller and Lin (1988)and Wood et al. (1990) in Los Angeles represent the earliest studies of homeless children that assessed health outcomes. Each of these investigations found a higher prevalence of health-related problems compared to low-income housed children or children in the general population. A second-generation study (Weinreb et al., 1998) with more methodological rigor than prior studies compared 293 homeless children ranging from 2 months to 17 years of age to 334 low-income housed (never homeless) children and also found greater frequency of health problems among homeless children. Only one study, Menke and Wagner (1997), did not show differences on health-related outcomes between homeless and low-income housed groups of children.

Summary of impact of homelessness.  Past studies have been somewhat mixed in their findings on the impact of homelessness on children, especially when comparing homeless to low-income housed children. While the magnitude of severity of problems found among homeless (and low-income housed) children tends to be in the mild to moderate range in the short term, in virtually all instances these two groups of low-income children look worse on various outcome measures compared to children in the general population. Very little research has gauged the impact of homelessness over the longer term, but the evidence suggests that any short-term impact dissipates after several years. A two year follow-up of homeless children in the WFRP indicated that exposure to violence had a much more pronounced negative effect on school-age childrens mental health than did history of homelessness (Buckner, Beardslee, & Bassuk, 2004). Similarly, Shinn et al. (in press) found, across a broad age range, that formerly homeless and housed children in New York City looked quite similar to each other on indices of health, mental health, IQ, and academic achievement approximately 55 months after the initial shelter entry of the homeless group. These investigators, however, did find elevated internalizing and externalizing behavior problems at follow-up among a subgroup of children who were homeless when they were infants and toddlers as compared to their housed counterparts.

Due to the lack of consistency across the studies that have been conducted, all that can be reasonably concluded from the scientific evidence at this stage is that homelessness (when meant as a stay in a family shelter) can have a detrimental short-term impact on children, but not in all instances. Homelessness can function as a marker of risk for children, meaning that children who are homeless are likely going to have a higher prevalence rate of problems than similar age youths in the general population, but not necessarily higher against a comparison of similarly poor, but housed children.

Differences among the studies from the first to second generation also suggest that some of the improvement in childrens outcomes may be due to the much greater societal response to the problem of homelessness than was the case when the earliest studies were undertaken. The McKinney-Vento Act programs and improvements to family shelters have likely buffered some of the negative impact of homelessness.

In addition, the structural backdrop of homelessness, as noted, likely complicates what can be attributed to the impact of homelessness on children. Because homelessness among families is largely due to a structural imbalance between the supply and the demand for affordable housing, those most vulnerable to homelessness are those least able to compete for the scarce supply of available affordable housing (Buckner, 1991, 2004a; Shinn, 1992). In the beginning stages of a protracted housing shortage, it is likely that the most vulnerable families will become homeless first  those with significant problems or issues such as a mental health, substance use, or physical health disorder. As a structural problem worsens over time regarding the demand for affordable housing in relation to the supply, studies of homeless families would likely find differences in rates of problems between homeless and low-income housed families compared to findings of investigations conducted in the early stages of a tightening housing market. The implication this has for homelessness research is that, all other things being equal, in a gradually worsening housing market that takes many years to unfold, early studies may reveal greater problems among shelter residents (adults and children) than do later studies. In addition, if there are other factors that determine which families entered shelter, these also could have a role in influencing childrens mental health (or other aspects of child functioning). As a result, the status of being homeless, itself, may not be the reason or only reason for the heightened problems seen among children living in shelter.

Researchers who have examined the impact of homelessness on children have also had to grapple with the difficulty of trying to demarcate where the effects on children of poverty-related sources of risk end and homelessness-specific risks begin. Children from low-income families, whether homeless or housed, face an array of chronic strains (e.g., hunger, feeling unsafe) and acute negative life events (e.g., exposure to community and domestic violence) that stem from the broader conditions of poverty. In terms of exposure to such risk factors, homeless and low-income housed children differ far more from children in the general population than they do from one another.Despite their current housing status being dissimilar, homeless children and low-income housed children have many more similarities than differences in terms of the extent and nature of adversities to which they have been exposed (cf. Masten et al., 1993; Buckner et al., 1999). Even regarding housing status, it is important to note that homelessness is a temporary state through which people pass, not a permanent trait emanating from individual deficits (Shinn, 1997). Moreover, housed low-income children can often be found living in rundown and decrepit dwellings, thereby reducing the contrast between them and children living in shelter. When viewed in the context of a much broader range of adversities, it is apparent that homelessness is but one of many stressors that children living in poverty all too frequently encounter.

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