Women Living in a Homeless Shelter: Stress, Coping and Leisure

Article excerpt

Historically there were two periods of extreme homelessness in the United States, namely the Great Depression and the 1980s (Baum & Burnes, 1993). Kelly (2001) noted that at the beginning of the twenty first century there were up to two million people homeless in any given year. Perhaps the United States is on the brink of yet a third period of extreme homelessness as those numbers continue to rise. Television shows depict people standing in long food lines, and newspaper articles demonstrate that unemployment numbers are growing. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2002 the official poverty rate significantly increased over the previous year (Proctor & Dalaker, 2003). This government record showed an increase in poverty of female-headed households and in people who worked but still earned below the poverty threshold. Poverty increased in nine states: Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Utah.

The correlation between a struggling economy and its impact on the poorest people in communities across the country, who are often women and children, is indisputable. Therefore, it is not surprising that unlike the earlier high homeless times, women currently account for half of the homeless population (Grimm & Maldonado, 1995). In discussing women who were homeless, Liebow (1993) wrote,

   How do they manage to slog through day after day, with no end
   in sight? How in a world of unremitting grimness, do they
   manage to laugh, love, enjoy families, even dance and play the
   fool? How in short, do they stay fully human while body and soul
   are under continuous grievous assaults (p. 25)?

Indeed, the literature consistently shows that homelessness is a stressful situation for all who are homeless, especially for women (e.g., Banyard & Graham-Bermann, 1995; Fogel, 1997; Goodman, Saxe, & Harvey, 1991; Huttman & Redmond, 1992; Thrasher & Mowbray, 1995). Klitzing (2003) provided some insight as to how women who are homeless use leisure to cope with stress. The current study expanded this research to understand more fully the stress experienced by women who lived in a transitional homeless shelter, to explore how the women coped with their stress, and to identify the role leisure played in helping the women to cope. Photo-elicitation was used to extend and clarify data obtained through traditional interviews. This paper provides a review of the literature on leisure and coping, women who are homeless and coping, and photo-elicitation. The results presented are from the voices and cameras of 11 women who lived in a transitional homeless shelter.

Review of Related Literature

Leisure and Coping

For more than a decade leisure scholars have suggested that leisure could help people cope with stress (e.g., Coleman, 1993; Compton & IsoAhola, 1994: Iso-Ahola & Park, 1996). Coleman and Iso-Ahola (1993) proposed that leisure was a buffer against adverse effects of stress on physical and mental health. In analyzing how leisure could contribute to people's ability to cope with stress, Iwasaki and Mannell (2000) identified two dimensions of leisure stress coping, namely leisure coping beliefs and leisure coping strategies. Leisure coping beliefs are defined as "people's generalized beliefs that their leisure helps them cope with stress" (p. 165). Leisure coping strategies are actual strategies that people use to cope with stress. Three strategies were discussed by Iwasaki and Mannell. The first strategy was "leisure companionship," or engaging in leisure that is shared with other people. The second strategy was "leisure palliative coping," which meant leisure provides a time-out that allows people to escape stress, become refreshed, and become better able to handle problems. The last strategy was "leisure mood enhancement," leisure that increases positive moods or decreases negative moods. …