Self-Help Strategies and Resources among People at Risk of Homelessness: Empirical Findings and Social Services Policy

By Marin, Marguerite V.; Vacha, Edward F. | Social Work, November 1994 | Go to article overview

Self-Help Strategies and Resources among People at Risk of Homelessness: Empirical Findings and Social Services Policy


Marin, Marguerite V., Vacha, Edward F., Social Work


Although the literature on the prevention of homelessness often includes recommendations by researchers, social policymakers, and social services practitioners (Bingham, Green, & White, 1987; Caton, 1990; Momeni, 1990), surprisingly little is known about the various methods used by poor people to avoid homelessness. Existing evidence suggests that informal helping among the poor population has managed to keep millions of homeless people off the streets (Rossi, 1989; Rossi, Wright, Fisher, & Willis, 1987; Vacha & Marin, 1993; Wright, 1989). This article examines the self-help strategies and resources that exist among members of poor households and their role in the prevention of homelessness.

Our focus is on a particular category of people--the doubled-up homeless population. As the term suggests, members of the doubled-up homeless population obtain shelter from their friends and relatives to avoid living on the streets or in homeless shelters. Although our primary focus is on the homeless population, our policy recommendations include ways to help the low-income households that shelter them as well.

Doubled-up Households as Agents of Homelessness Prevention

Despite their own poverty and inadequate living conditions, poor households provide the majority of housing for the homeless population. Wright (1989), referring to a study of Chicago's homeless population, indicated that there are some 80,000 Chicago residents who are not actually homeless because they are subsidized by their family and friends, either through cash assistance (30,000 cases) or direct housing (50,000 cases). Similarly, Vacha and Marin (1993) found that about one out of six low-income households seeking energy assistance was currently sheltering people who would otherwise be forced to live outdoors or in homeless shelters. Thus, many of those who are very poor have been able to avoid literal homelessness primarily through the generosity of their friends and relatives (Rossi et al., 1987; Shinn, Knickman, & Weitzman, 1991).

Although the limited research suggests that doubling up may act as a stopgap to homelessness, what little is known about it also indicates that it can be very unstable. Living arrangements in doubled-up households are often far from ideal. Household members not only must struggle to meet their monthly food and housing costs, they must also share overcrowded accommodations and contend with different lifestyles (Thorman, 1988). Hope and Young (1986), commenting on shelter use patterns among the homeless population, wrote that "the most frequent reason for seeking admission is eviction . . . over half the evictions are from the home of a friend or relative". Finally, Vacha and Marin (1993) reported that a very large proportion of those who house homeless people are at risk of homelessness themselves.

Research on self-help among doubled-up households is limited, and the role of doubling up in homelessness prevention is not clearly understood. Furthermore, what has been published has focused on the impact of doubling up on the people who provide the housing. Even less is known about those who receive housing assistance from their friends and relatives.

The only research concerning those who have been housed by their friends and relatives the authors could locate was reported in studies of homeless people living in public shelters (Hope & Young, 1986; Shinn et al., 1991; Thorman, 1988). However, the people who end up in shelters may not be similar to those who manage to remain in conventional housing. For example, Shinn et al. (1991) reported that most homeless people do not turn to shelters until they have completely exhausted their social networks. Furthermore, Phillips, DeChillo, Kronenfield, and Middleton-Jeter (1988) indicated that the families most likely to be evicted from doubled-up households are those most affected by stress and least able to effectively cope with stress. …

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