Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Process of Becoming Homeless: An Investigation of Female-Headed Families Living in Poverty

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Process of Becoming Homeless: An Investigation of Female-Headed Families Living in Poverty

Article excerpt

Homelessness is regarded as one of the most urgent and complex domestic problems in the United States, generating extensive media coverage, congressional debate, and social scientific research. As Snow and Bradford note, this level of interest is the result of the increasing numbers and visibility of the homeless in society that suggest "the haunting possibility that characteristics of the Third World [are] beginning to manifest themselves in America" (1994, 454). Further, access to safe, affordable, and adequate housing is viewed widely as an "inalienable right," with its absence seen as a shattering of the "American Dream."

Contributing to this heightened interest is the discovery that prototypical portraits of the homeless are no longer appropriate (Baker 1994). During the last decade, the homeless subpopulation became increasingly diverse, with female-headed homeless families comprising the fastest growing segment (Edelman and Mihaly 1989; Rossi 1994). 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 (Berlin and McAllister 1992; Hawks 1989; Sullivan and Damrosch 1987).


Two important and interrelated causal factors of the recent rise in homelessness are decreases in the stock of affordable housing and increases in the number of poor (see Shinn and Gillespie 1994 for a review). Between 1970 and 1989 more than three quarters of the previously available unsubsidized low-rent units were lost due to deterioration, abandonment, or gentrification (Joint Center for Housing Studies 1993). The number of federally-subsidized units only increased by one million during this period, which was not nearly enough to make up for these losses. At the same time, the highest income level in the bottom quartile of all renters fell 25 percent in 1991 dollars from $10,080 to $7,558 (Dolbeare 1991).

The end result is that in 1991 there were 7.98 million households in the bottom income quartile but only 2.76 million units with gross rents equal to 30 percent of their income or less (the HUD standard for affordable housing), leaving an "affordability gap" of 5.22 million units (Shinn and Gillespie 1994). Comparisons of the number of poor minority households and the number of low-income units occupied by minorities show that blacks have been hit hardest by the housing squeeze (Wasson 1995). Hispanics have fared better, primarily due to higher rates of doubling-up in the homes of extended family or friends.

Although doubling-up may provide a permanent housing solution for some, for others it is only the first step to homelessness. According to Hill and Stamey (1990, 311):

Going from "housed" to "homeless" is rarely a sudden or unexpected event. Instead, it is a process whereby an individual moves from a self-sufficient dwelling, such as an apartment, to living with friends, relatives, or in government-controlled, temporary housing, to the streets.

Therefore, this research suggests a threc-state process in which people move from their own homes to doubling-up with others, and, as a last resort, to homelessness (also see Honig and Filer 1993). According to Ringheim (1990), the number of households with related families living together increased by 98 percent between 1980 and 1987. Together with the number of unrelated families doubling-up, which increased by 57 percent over the same period, nearly 3 million households existed in this condition. Recent data from the U.S. Census reveal that this number increased to more than 3.5 million, or approximately 4 percent of all households, by 1996. Further, current welfare reform legislation exacerbates this problem for female-headed families living in poverty whose incomes are predicted to drop substantially in the coming years (Hill and Stephens 1997). Those families unable to find their own place or to double-up, by default, end up homeless. …

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