Academic journal article Family Relations

Homeless Policy: The Need to Speak to Families

Academic journal article Family Relations

Homeless Policy: The Need to Speak to Families

Article excerpt

For years the most popular stereotype of the homeless in the United States was the bum on skid row, drinking wine from a brown paper bag or seeking handouts from passersby. However, during the last decade, the scarcity of affordable housing-coupled with other social and economic changes--thrust many new faces into the homeless population. Unemployed workers, able-bodied veterans, farmers, and runaway youth joined the ranks of the homeless in growing numbers (Rossi, 1990). Perhaps the most distressing change in the composition of the homeless was the increasing number of homeless families. Families with children now represent the fastest growing segment of the homeless, accounting for approximately 43% of the homeless population (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1993). The Institute of Medicine (1988) estimates that as many as 100,000 American children are homeless on any given night. In addition to the "official" homeless, there are countless thousands of families precariously doubled-up with relatives or friends, just one crisis away from becoming homeless.

The present article focuses on homeless families, the "new" group among the homeless. The article summarizes current research on the characteristics of these families, presents a brief history of government homeless policy, and makes suggestions for formulating future homeless policies that incorporate family principles.


Recognizing that families now constitute a sizeable percentage of the homeless, researchers and policy makers have begun to examine their characteristics. Nine out of 10 homeless families with children are female-headed households with a mean of two children per family (Kondratas, 1991). Three quarters of these families are members of racial and ethnic minority groups. The median age of homeless mothers is in the late 20s, approximately half have never been married, and approximately half have never finished high school (Milburn & Booth, 1990). Most homeless families receive public assistance, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Research suggests that many homeless families enter shelters because of a crisis event, such as the loss of a job, illness, change in a personal relationship (e.g., divorce, desertion), or loss of housing due to fire or flood. Homeless mothers have been found to experience a relatively high prevalence of disruptive family events, including divorce, illness, physical abuse, and sexual abuse (Goodman, 1991). Some studies have found that homeless mothers are more likely than housed mothers to experience social isolation and to lack supportive relationships with family, friends, and neighbors (e.g., Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1988). In contrast to single homeless adults, only about 10% of homeless parents report that they have been hospitalized for mental illness or treated for substance abuse (Kondratas, 1991).

The vast majority of families are homeless for economic reasons. As McChesney (1987) reports, most homeless families were poor before they became homeless, frequently living from month to month and struggling to pay their bills. Such families often live in neighborhoods characterized by rampant violence, persistent unemployment, poor schools, and limited access to medical and social services. Although eviction or relationship problems precipitate homelessness for many single-parent households, the reality is that neither welfare payments nor the minimum wage earnings of these low-skilled women are sufficient to pay the rent, cover child care, and meet health care and other living expenses. Such economic problems may increase parental feelings of hopelessness, dependency, and depression, contributing to family dysfunction.

In 1993, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (1993) reported a 13% increase in shelter requests from homeless families over the previous year. However, due to minimal housing resources, the 26 cities surveyed were unable to satisfy almost 30% of family requests for temporary shelter. …

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