Academic journal article Family Relations

The Impact of Homelessness and Shelter Life on Family Relationships

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Impact of Homelessness and Shelter Life on Family Relationships

Article excerpt

The Impact of Homelessness and Shelter Life on Family Relationships*

Elizabeth W. Lindsey**

This study explored mothers' perceptions of how homelessness and shelter life affected family relationships. Participants reported increased closeness and heightened quality and quantity of interaction with their children, but a disruption in their roles as disciplinarians and providers/caretakers. Factors which mothers perceived to affect relationships were shelter conditions (rules and interactions with staff and residents), the mother's emotional state, and the child's emotional state, temperament, and behavior. Implications for practice are suggested.

Key Words: family homelessness, family relationships, homeless mother-child relationships, homelessness, shelter life.

Members of homeless families currently comprise approximately a third of the U.S. homeless population, and homeless children comprise the fastest growing segment of the homeless population (McChesney, 1995; Reyes & Waxman,1989; U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, 1994). The vast majority (80-85%) of these families are headed by single mothers. The first wave of family homelessness that began in the 1980s has been attributed to federal cuts in housing programs, loss of privately owned low-income housing stock, the failure of public assistance benefits to keep pace with inflation, increased rate of divorce, and failure of courts to enforce child support orders. At the same time, structural changes in the Il.S. economy resulted in loss of higher paying jobs that were replaced by lower paying service sector jobs (Rossi, 1994). Recent changes in welfare programs threaten to create a second wave of family homelessness. With public assistance no longer an entitlement and benefits limited to 2-5 years (depending on the state), it is likely that the numbers of homeless families will increase, especially when the economy takes its next downturn and recent hires lose their jobs. Both service providers and formerly homeless mothers have asserted the pivotal role public assistance has played in helping homeless families emerge from homelessness (Lindsey, 1997; 1998). Without this safety net, families will find it harder to emerge from homelessness, and the length of time families are homeless is likely to increase. In addition, the absence of benefits may well precipitate some families into homelessness who would otherwise have managed to maintain their own residences.

Despite the fact that family homelessness has been increasing for over 15 years we still know very little about the impact of homelessness on family relationships. Research has focused primarily on precipitants of family homelessness (Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1988: McChesney, 1990; Weitzman, Knickman, & Shinn, 1990), characteristics of homeless family members (Bassuk, 1990; Johnson,1989; Mills & Ota, 1989), and the effect of homelessness on mothers and children (Hall & Maza, 1990; Rafferty dE Shinn, 1991). Much less is known about how homelessness affects the family itself, especially from the parents' point of view. Family shelters have been built, existing shelters have been opened to families, and transitional housing programs have been initiated, often with very little attention paid to the unique issues presented by families. When shelters that previously served single men and/or women have been opened to families, frequently the same rules have been applied to families as to singles, regardless of how inappropriate or how destructive they are to family relationships. For example, formerly homeless mothers have reported having to leave shelters each day, with their preschool age children, at 7:00 a.m. and not being allowed to return until 5:00 p.m., regardless of the weather (Lindsey, 1997). Many women have left their children with relatives or placed them in foster care rather than take them into a shelter (Liebow, 1993).

The purpose of this study is to explore mothers' perceptions of how homelessness and shelter life affect relationships in mother-headed families. …

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