Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Narrative and Collaborative Practices in Work with Families That Are Homeless

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Narrative and Collaborative Practices in Work with Families That Are Homeless

Article excerpt

This article reports on the use of narrative therapy ideas and practices in working with families that are homeless in a shelter-based, multiple-family discussion group program called Fresh Start for Families. It begins with a review of the challenges facing homeless families. It then briefly describes the collaborative methods used to develop the program. It then describes a range of practices and activities that provide opportunities for families to be witnessed in telling their stories of challenge and coping, to help and be helped by other families experiencing similar challenges, to reconnect and strengthen a positive sense of family identity while externalizing the constraining, stigmatizing descriptions associated with homelessness, and to envision and take steps towards their preferred futures.

There is a rich tradition of narrative therapists working with disenfranchised communities of persons marginalized and oppressed by more powerful persons or groups on the basis of their class, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, medical illness, psychiatric diagnosis, trauma history, immigration and citizen status, and other dimensions of difference inherited, elected, or imposed (see, for example, Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia, 1995; Col- orado, Montgomery, & Tovar, 1998; Epston, White, & "Ben," 1995; Griffith & Griffith, 1995; Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1994; Madigan & Epston, 1995; Madsen, 2006; Nichols & Jacques, 1995; Seikkula & Olson, 2003; Sheinberg & Fraenkel, 2001; Waldegrave, Tamasese, Tuhaka, & Campbell, 2003; Weingarten, 1995; Wingard & Lester, 2001). This article describes the use of ideas and practices from narrative therapies in working with families that are homeless.1 Included in this discussion are specific ideas about the nature of problems as embedded in language and other forms of representation families use to describe themselves and that are used by others to describe them; specific practices, such as deconstructing and externalizing problems, and supporting developments that represent emergence or reemergence of preferred narratives; and the narrative therapies' endorsement of a collaborative, less hierarchical stance between families and those working with them to effect change.

The article begins by describing some of the negative effects and associated circumstances of family homelessness. It then describes a range of practices included in a shelter-based multiple-family program designed to provide families opportunities to share their experiences and to provide each other witnessing and support; to externalize and minimize the effects of homelessness; to regain a sense of pride, positive identity, self agency, and a hopeful vision of the future; and to take steps towards attaining education, employment, housing, and other aspects of their lives that will provide the material basis for further development of their preferred identities. Although created for a program for families that are homeless, with minor adaptation, these practices can be useful for housed, economically marginalized families.

The focus of this article is on describing the narrative practices of the program. Future articles will report the results of two ongoing outcome studies that provide research support for its effectiveness.


The most obvious concrete, material deprivation experienced by families that are homeless is lack of affordable, safe housing (Choi & Snyder, 1999; Fischer, 2000; Goodman, Saxe, & Harvey, 1991; Lindsey, 1998). However, homelessness compounds other material deprivations and difficulties accessing resources also experienced by many low-income, housed families. Many parents find themselves in precarious circumstances and high levels of stress and demoralization due to dilemmas that pitch economic sustenance, employment, housing, education, daily family functions, and health needs against one another. …

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