Academic journal article Family Relations

Social Support of Homeless and Permanently Housed Low-Income Mothers with Young Children

Academic journal article Family Relations

Social Support of Homeless and Permanently Housed Low-Income Mothers with Young Children

Article excerpt


Bethany L Letiecq, Elaine A. Anderson, and Sally A. Koblinsky**

The present study compared the social support of 92 homeless and 115 permanently housed low-income mothers. Results revealed that homeless mothers were in significantly less contact with their friends/relatives, could count on fewer people for help and child care in times of need, and felt their social networks were less helpful in raising their families than housed mothers. Further, longer stays in homelessness were predictive of less helpful social networks, which may hinder a family's return to permanent housing. Implications of these findings and recommendations for family service providers are discussed.

When considering the problem of homelessness, many Americans think of the stereotypical skid row bums, the IV-drug users, or perhaps the mentally ill living on the sidewalks begging for change from passers-by. However, today's homeless population is also made up of a less visible group-that of women with young children. Since the early 1980s, families with children have been the fastest growing segment of the homeless population; by 1993, they accounted for 43% of all homeless individuals (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1993).

The recent emergence of family homelessness has resulted in several studies documenting family homelessness as a social problem (Bassuk, 1991; McChesney, 1990; Weinreb & Buckner, 1993), describing the characteristics of homeless families (Bassuk, Rubin, & Lauriat, 1986), and examining the effects of homelessness on children (Rafferty & Shinn, 1991). An increasing body of research has also investigated why family homelessness occurs. At the macrosocial level, McChesney (1992) and others (Rossi, 1989; Wright, 1989) have suggested that the root cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. However, McChesney (1992) also has identified several family- or individuallevel factors that may place poor families at greater risk of homelessness, including limited social support.

Approximately 20 years ago, researchers began focusing attention on the importance of social support to psychological well-being (Caplan, 1979; Cobb, 1976). Having others to turn to for help in times of need may enhance subjective well-being, facilitate coping with stress, and strengthen parental functioning (McLoyd, 1990; Rook, 1984). Social support networks may provide a safety net for families at risk of becoming homeless, and thus help to keep these families permanently housed (Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1988; McChesney, 1992). Likewise, support provided by family, friends, and social service agencies may play a critical role in helping homeless families return to self-sufficiency. However, to date, there is no clear understanding of the nature and role of social support networks among homeless families with children. Information is needed about the types of social support that homeless families perceive to be available and actually receive and about whether there are differences in the support experienced by homeless families and their low-income housed peers. To shed light on these issues, the current study compared the social support of homeless and permanently housed low-income families with young children.


Social Support Concepts

Although there have been important advances in the study of social support over the last decade (Gottlieb, 1981; Sarason & Sarason, 1985), there has been continued debate about the meaning of the term. Definitions have been so vague, broad, and diverse that social support has been described as "in danger of losing its distinctiveness" (Barrera, 1986, p. 414). To provide a more precise framework for investigating social support, Barrera (1986) identified three distinct concepts. The first, social embeddedness, refers to the connections that individuals have to significant others in their social network. …

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