Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Homeless Children: Coping with Material Losses

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Homeless Children: Coping with Material Losses

Article excerpt

The problem of homelessness has become one of the most compelling social dilemmas of the last decade (King et al. 1989). This sub-population has become increasingly diverse (Hill and Stamey 1990), with homeless families the fastest growing segment (Edelman and Mihaly 1989). The effect on these families is often quite devastating, resulting in significant interpersonal strain and potentially the collapse of traditional familial bonds and relationships (Neiman 1988).

Berger and Tremblay (1989) found that many homeless families are composed of single mothers with children who suffer from the combined effects of divorce, desertion, and abuse (see Bassuk 1986 for additional details). Further, most of these children spend their critical physical and psychological development years without the security of a permanent home (Wright and Weber 1987). The consequences of this lifestyle on the children may include developmental delays, severe depression and anxiety, and low self-esteem (Bassuk and Rubin 1987). While estimates vary, research suggests that between 20 and 33 percent of homeless persons are members of family units, and approximately two-thirds of these individuals are children (Berger and Tremblay 1989; Hawks 1989; Journal of Home Economics 1989; Sullivan and Damrosch 1987).

This negative portrait notwithstanding, recent research by Neiman (1988) suggests that some children may cope moderately well under these enormously difficult circumstances. Her study involving pre-schoolers who lived in the welfare hotels of New York City found that some of the children are "resilient" defined as enduring hardships and emerging as effectively functioning individuals. These more resilient children seem to be drawn to positive role models within their living environments, frequently the remaining parent.

This finding has been duplicated within a consumer context by Hill (1991). In this investigation, Hill found that homeless women cope with shelter living by developing strong attachments to the Roman Catholic sisters that run the facility. However, consistent with the work of Wallendorf and Arnould (1988), he also found that object attachments go beyond personal relationships to include possessions that hold symbolic value regarding past or future better circumstances.

The purpose of this inquiry is to examine the impact of possessions and fantasies of homeless children on their ability to cope with a lack of the most basic of consumer goods--a stable home. First, the method is described as an ethnographic experience. Second, the results are presented focusing attention on the background characteristics of the children, maintained and lost possessions, life at the shelter, and fantasies. Finally, a discussion is provided that interprets these results, and social policy implications are delineated.


This study used an ethnographic approach, which has been applied with increasing frequency to the investigation of consumer issues in the last few years (Wallendorf and Belk 1989). Employing this method, data collection as well as the ultimate interpretation are guided by emergent design; where the researcher builds an understanding of the phenomenon as it exists in its natural environment (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; Denzin 1988). Typically, participant observation and both nondirective and directive interviewing are the primary techniques utilized (Sherry 1990). Also, consistent with Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf (1988) and Sherry (1990), the names of the shelter and the informants have been changed to preserve anonymity.

This investigation of homeless children was embedded in a larger ethnography of the Sisters of Mercy Shelter, a facility for homeless women run by Roman Catholic nuns (see Hill 1991 for more details). The shelter is located in a suburban area of a major northeastern city, allowing relatively easy access from several adjacent communities. It is situated at the intersection of two busy streets and is across from a church that has title to the building. …

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