Increased research on homelessness during the past decade has underscored the presence of mental health problems, alcohol and substance abuse, and psychological distress among homeless people (Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1988; Bassuk, Rubin, & Lauriat, 1986; Dail, 1990; Fischer & Breakey, 1991; Goodman, Saxe, & Harvey, 1991; Milburn & D'Ercole, 1991; Mills & Ota, 1989). Homeless families present special concerns, especially because they have become the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. In a survey of 27 cities conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1989, approximately one-third of the overall homeless population were families (Bassuk & Cohen, 1991), and in some cities - for example, New York City; Portland, Oregon; Norfolk, Virginia; and Trenton, New Jersey - the proportion of families exceeded 50 percent (Bassuk, Carman, & Weinreb, 1990).
Women with children constitute the largest subgroup of homeless families (Axelson & Dail, 1988; Bassuk & Cohen, 1991; Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1990; Hagen, 1987; Kozol, 1988; McChesney, 1986; Rafferty, 1991; Solarz, 1988). A three-day conference about homeless families sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that homeless women with children are a neglected population in homelessness research (Bassuk & Cohen, 1991). The participants agreed that the needs of homeless families are urgent and require illumination. A review of published reports on homeless women with children identified conflicting results about social support, racial composition, and psychological distress (Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1988; Goodman, 1991; Molnar, Roth, Klein, Lowe, & Hartman, 1991; Shinn, Knickman, & Weitzman, 1991; Wood, Valdez, Hayashi, & Shen, 1990). The problem of homeless women with children is particularly relevant to the social work profession because of the predominance of social workers among those delivering services to vulnerable populations (Holloway, 1991). This article describes an ethnographic study of homeless women with children, addressing a research gap in the literature on homelessness and providing guideposts for social work practice models.
Ethnography is a qualitative research approach that permits social construction of the worldview of participants through the participants' own words. An ethnographic approach has produced insights about homeless mentally ill women (Koegel, 1987), homeless women residing in shelters (Liebow, 1993), and homeless men (Koegel, 1992). This study was guided by the strengths perspective and thus sought to recognize the functional adaptations that homeless women with children have developed in response to the adverse conditions of homelessness. The strengths perspective calls attention to the exercise of survival skills and daily problem solving as the women struggle to keep their families together. Through ethnography, the women identified for the researchers their strengths in seeking shelter residency, caring for children, finding new housing, and obtaining and remaining connected to support networks.
Three shelters in the Detroit metropolitan area (including the city of Detroit and Wayne County) for homeless families were the sites for this research [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] study (Table 1). Shelter A is located in inner-city Detroit, is the largest with a bed capacity of 140 (80 for families and 60 for homeless men), and has predominantly African American residents. Shelter B is located in the western part of the county, has residency for 30 women with or without children who are victims of domestic violence, and has predominantly white residents. Shelter C is located in the central part of Wayne county and has a residency capacity for 80 families. The families in shelter C are more racially diverse than those in the other two shelters. The average length of stay at shelters B and C is 30 days, and the average length of stay at shelter A is 14 days. …