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Homeless Families

Homeless Families

Homeless families are those that either lack shelter or have shelter that is so inadequate, temporary, or insecure that the situation threatens the social, psychological, or physical health of the family. Homeless families are a departure from the classic homeless image of the single male, detached from society and disaffiliated from kin, friends, and work.

Homeless families receive attention in large part because the presence of children among the homeless confronts society directly with its failure to guarantee a minimum standard of protection. The questions of who these families are, how they became homeless, and how their homelessness can be prevented and ameliorated carry an urgency that contrasts with more blaming attitudes towards the single homeless individual.

Prevalence of Family Homelessness

It is difficult to ascertain the numbers of homeless families. Few countries systematically enumerate the homeless in their national censuses, and unless the families reside in a public shelter, they are difficult to locate. Homeless families may not want to be found for fear of involvement of child welfare authorities. Furthermore, it is not known how many families are doubled up, sleep in vacant buildings, or separate due to lack of housing. At times the single female homeless person may be a woman who has recently lost custody of her children, and this may also mask the true prevalence of homeless families.

What proportion of the homeless population in the United States is comprised of families? Census 2000 counted 170,706 individuals living in emergency and transitional shelters for the homeless, out of a total US population of 281,421,906, or .6 percent of the population (Smith and Smith 2001). Of this number approximately 25.7 percent were under eighteen years old. The 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) (Burt et al. 1999) gathered information on homelessness from a statistical sample of homeless-serving agencies in the US and found that 15 percent of all homeless households were families consisting of a homeless individual with one or more minor children with them. However, if one considers all homeless individuals including minor children, then 34 percent of homeless people found at homeless assistance program were members of homeless families. Of the minor children living with their homeless parent, 20 percent were infants and toddlers (up to age two), 22 percent were preschoolers (ages three to five), 33 percent were elementary school age (six to twelve) and 20 percent were adolescents (twelve to seventeen) (National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients NSHAPC 1999).

Most research on homeless families is conducted in emergency shelters for families. This poses the question of whether we are actually studying the services for the homeless rather than the phenomenon itself. It then becomes necessary to ask, if many communities are more comfortable in providing services for homeless families than for single people, whether it is correct to conclude that a large proportion of the homeless population are living in families.

Worldwide, the United Nations estimates that one billion people live in conditions of inadequate shelter or literal homelessness. Most of these people are families who are driven to living in squatter settlements due to rural-to-urban migration, severe unemployment and underemployment, and the existence of large numbers of refugees and victims of disasters (United Nations Centre for Human Settlement 1990; Glasser 1994; Bascom 1993).

Causes of Family Homelessness

A major cause of family homelessness in the urban centers of North America and Western Europe is the shortage of affordable housing. Cities have been transformed from manufacturing to service-based economies, and offices, retail complexes, and luxury high-rise apartments have replaced low-rent housing. A widely used word for this process is gentrification, a term introduced by Glass (1964), to describe the phenomenon in the 1960s whereby the British gentry bought and renovated old buildings in London.

The problem of the dearth of affordable housing is compounded by the large percentage of family income that poor families spend on rent. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (1999) and the National Low Income Housing Coalition (1998), a minimum wage earner would have to work eighty-seven hours per week in a median cost state in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the 30 percent of one's income that is considered affordable by the U.S. government. If a family receives the financial assistance program Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the family will be at or below the federal poverty level and will therefore compete for the limited number of public housing or rent-subsidized housing units available.

One productive method of uncovering causes of family homelessness is to look for two similar societies that have very different rates of family homelessness. Working alone and together in Hartford, Connecticut, and Quebec City, Quebec, Irene Glasser, Louise Fournier, and André Costopolous (1999) found that although both cities have a homeless population, Quebec City has approximately one-tenth the number of people living in its short-term and long-term shelter beds as has Hartford, and no apparent family homelessness.

The most obvious explanation for the absence of family homelessness in Quebec is the larger number of safety net programs in the province of Quebec and in Canada in general. With the greater amount and availability of financial assistance, a family is able to find and keep its housing despite emergencies such as the loss of a job or family separations. An alternative hypothesis is that families with severe problems are separated by the child protection authorities sooner and more frequently in Quebec, and therefore to do not present themselves as homeless families.

In addition to the structural problems of lack of affordable housing and very low income from welfare or work, families also face personal problems that may push them into homelessness. For example, fleeing domestic violence is one path to homelessness. A victim (most often a woman) may first take refuge in a domestic violence shelter, but when the crisis is resolved, and she still has no housing, she may have to move into a homeless shelter (Glasser and Zywiak 2000). Further, addiction to alcohol or drugs may affect parents, severely interfering with their ability to house their family. Moving into a shelter may be considered a first step in treatment, especially if the shelter has the ability to diagnose the addiction and facilitate treatment.

Adaptations to Homelessness

Probably the least researched but most common adaptation to homelessness is that of living with another poor family on a very temporary basis. This is referred to as doubling-up and is often a precursor to life on the streets, or in encampments and shelters. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 1999 there were 1,428,000 unrelated subfamilies or .5 percent of the total family population. These subfamilies are generally thought to be the doubled-up. Their poverty rate was 39 percent in contrast to the 10 percent poverty rate of all families (U.S. Census Bureau 2000).

The pioneering work of Janet Fitchen (1996) on rural homelessness in New York State documented that a frequent response to poverty was to squeeze two families into a trailer or apartment that was already too small for one. These arrangements were often short-lived, as the strain of the situation made life unbearable. Doubling-up was associated with a worsening economy in rural areas due to the large loss of manufacturing jobs and the rise of single motherhood in which income (through work or welfare) was not adequate to pay rent. Fitchen (1992) also found that at times enforcing building codes on a family living in a crumbling farmhouse or a tarpaper-sided shack pushed a family from being a homeowner to being a renter of unaffordable apartments, and eventually, into homelessness.

Anna Lou Dehavenon (1996) documented the relationship between doubling-up and homelessness in New York City's Emergency Assistance Units (EAUs) program, which places homeless families in temporary shelters. The EAUs' policy was to send homeless families back into doubledup situations, from which 78 percent of them had just come. Although 92 percent of the guest families paid the host families rent, the guest families could not live together in these severely overcrowded conditions.

In the developing world the major adaptation to homelessness for hundreds of thousands of people is to live in squatter settlements. Squatting, as a generic term, refers to building a shelter of easily found materials on property to which one has no legal claim. These settlements are known by many terms, including bidonvilles (tin cities) in Africa, favelas in Brazil, and pueblos jovénes (young towns) in Peru, and pavement dwellers in India. The harsh realities of living in a Brazilian favela were documented by Carolina De Jesus in the now-classic Child of the Dark (1963), one of the few such first-person accounts.

Although squatter settlements were initially thought of as temporary, makeshift arrangements for new rural migrants to urban areas, by the late 1960s, squatter settlements were seen as rational alternatives to the housing shortage for low-income people (Turner 1976). Some governments shifted from a policy of demolishing the settlements to projects bringing them clean water, sanitation, electricity, and security of tenure. Critics of governmental encouragement of self-help point out that this absolves governments from committing significant amounts of money to housing their population and also reduces the wage requirements of workers by giving them access to low-cost housing.

In an in-depth study of the squatters of vacant public housing in and around Paris, Guy Boudimbou (1992) found that most of the squatters were Northern and West African immigrant families who faced significant housing discrimination. One form of adaptation was for a network of squatters to move from one vacant building to another, sometimes with the help of "managers," some of whom collected the rent but were not able to produce an apartment.

Contrasting the Poor-but-Housed with Homeless Families

Further insight into homeless families comes from comparing them to poor-but-housed families. In a study of social relationships, 677 homeless mothers and 495 poor-but-housed mothers were interviewed in New York City (Shinn, Knickman, and Weitzman 1991). The homeless families were interviewed at the time of their request for shelter to avoid confusing characteristics caused by residence in the shelter with characteristics of the families themselves. A surprising finding was that the homeless respondents in fact were in greater touch with their social networks than their housed counterparts. However, the homeless respondents were less able to stay with relatives and friends, in large part because they had already worn out their welcome by having stayed with them previously.

Ellen L. Bassuk and John Buchner (1997) contrasted a sample of single mothers and their children living in shelters in Worcester, Massachusetts, with a sample of low-income single mothers who had never been homeless. Mothers of the homeless families were more likely to have been in foster-care placement and to have had a female caregiver who used drugs. In their adult lives they had lived in the area for a shorter period of time. They were also more likely to be African American or Puerto Rican. Factors that prevented homelessness for the poor families were linked with the mother's being a primary tenant (her name was on the lease), receiving monetary housing subsidies, and having a larger social network.

Programs that House Homeless Families

Shelters. Shelters are low-barrier, easy access congregate living for families for a short period of time (two to three months). They are frequently administered by community organizations, and their major form of treatment is case management, which seeks to re-house the family. Family shelters are usually dry—no drug or alcohol use. They may require that the adults be involved in substance-abuse treatment, mental health counseling, education, or job training, or be employed. A real problem for families living in shelters is that many family shelters bar fathers and adolescent boys from staying with the families, in effect splitting up the family (Susser 1993; Friedman 2000).

Transitional and supportive housing. In the United States, by the mid-1980s, a pattern was developing in which at least some of the homeless population experienced repeated episodes of shelter living. Many people were not able to make the transition from shelter to apartment living and were in need of more support in order to maintain permanent housing. This support came in the form of transitional housing, which generally consists of housing with two years of services; and supportive housing, which is housing with the provision of services for an open-ended period of time. Transitional and supportive housing may be provided in one physical space, or they may be provided in scattered apartments in publicly or privately owned buildings, with services brought in to the families. In many communities, these programs are better tolerated than shelters, which are often viewed with fear and suspicion.

An interesting approach to transitional housing is finding foster families for homeless families. Utilizing their experience in providing foster care to children, and noting the lack of social support and sense of isolation that was found in homeless families, the Human Service Associates (HAS), a private, nonprofit, child-placing agency in St. Paul, Minnesota, placed thirty-four families with host families (Cornish 1992). An evaluation of the project found that 60 percent of the foster families coresided with the host family for a period of four to six months, then moved into their own housing, and were still in their own housing six months later.

Homesteading. As in the pioneer frontier days of the United States and Canada, urban homesteading represents one strategy for providing housing. An example of contemporary homesteading is Harding Park, located on the waterfront in the Bronx, New York, a twenty-acre community, which now has 250 small homes on it. The area, which had been a weekend campsite for apartment dwellers since the early 1900s, became a refuge for mostly Puerto Rican residents living in high-crime neighborhoods in the Bronx, who found a tract of dilapidated shacks at the water's edge. The area was reminiscent of the fishing villages of Puerto Rico, and through their own labor and materials, and with permission from the City of New York, these modern homesteaders turned the shacks into habitable houses (Glasser and Bridgman 1999).

Eviction prevention. One strategy that prevents homelessness among families is resolving landlord-tenant disputes to avoid evictions. An example is the Tenancy Settlement/Mediation Program in Passaic County, New Jersey, an area with a declining amount of residential housing, a deteriorating economic base, and high rates of poverty and public assistance. The program is staffed by social workers trained in mediation and serves sixteen municipalities with a combined population of 500,000 people. In 1990, approximately 1,300 tenancy disputes were successfully settled, which reflects an 89.5 percent success rate (Curcio 1992).

Community development of squatter settlements. Some developing countries have programs that enable squatter settlements to upgrade their housing, bring in essential services (potable water, sanitation, and electricity), and secure the individual's right to remain in the housing. The World Bank is one of the leaders in the lending of money for squatter upgrading projects, which usually feature a strong self-help component. In some parts of the world, households get together to build each other's houses; in others, the household hires people to work for them; in still others, the household builds the house on its own (Keare and Parris 1982).

One successful example of squatter upgrading has been the Kampung Improvement Programme in Jakarta, Indonesia. A kampung is a village, but in Jakarta it refers to urban settlements on swampy land, subject to serious flooding. The Kampung Improvement Programme provided eighty-seven kampungs (more than one million people) with clean water, canals to mitigate flooding, improved roads and concrete paths, communal sanitation, and a system of garbage disposal. A World Bank Loan in 1974 added schools and health clinics. One major finding of this project was that bringing these services to the community inspired individual householders to improve their dwellings (Oliver 1987).


Examination of homeless families presents a tremendously diverse picture of the face of homelessness. The common thread is that families living in shelters, doubling-up, or in squatter settlements face enormous barriers to being able to nurture and educate their children adequately. Under these circumstances homeless families may eventually lose their ability to function as a family. Therefore, adequate and secure housing is essential in keeping families together; it is the anchor that underlies the very concept of family. Although the problem of homeless families remains substantial, creative approaches to providing permanent housing for families have been discovered in both the industrialized and the developing world. The best of these projects tap into the strengths and active participation of the families.

See also:Chronic Illness; Health and Families; Home; Housing; Migration; Poverty; Substance Abuse; Unemployment


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u.s. conference of mayors. (1998). a status report onhunger and homelessness in america's cites: 1998. available from

irene glasser

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