Families with Children & Homelessness

Homelessness exists when people lack safe, stable, and appropriate places to live. Sheltered and unsheltered people are homeless. People living doubled up or in overcrowded living situations or motels because of inadequate economic resources are included in this definition, as are those living in tents or other temporary enclosures.


Each year between 2—3 million people in the United States experience an episode of homelessness (Caton et al., 2005). The psychological and physical impact of homelessness is a matter of public health concern (Schnazer, Dominguez, Shrout, & Caton, 2007). Psychologists as clinicians, researchers, educators, and advocates must expand and redouble their efforts to end homelessness.

The APA Presidential Task Force on Psychology’s Contribution to End Homelessness, commissioned by James Bray, PhD, during his tenure as APA's president, mission was to identify and address the psychosocial factors and conditions associated with homelessness and define the role of psychologists in ending homelessness.

The overall population of people living without homes, in the United States, can be divided into several subgroups including individual adults; families with children; and unaccompanied youth who have left home, run away, or “aged out” of foster care placements.

Families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. In 2008, the number of sheltered families rose 9% (US Conference of Mayors, 2009; U.S. HUD, 2009a).

Families with Children

  • On a single night in January 2008, families with children comprised 38% of sheltered and unsheltered people in the United States (U.S. HUD, 2009a).

  • From October 2007 to September 2008, 1.6 million people utilized shelters or transitional housing programs in the United States. Of that population, 516,700 were members of a family unit (U.S. HUD, 2009a)

  •  The average sheltered family was headed by a female with two to three members (U.S. HUD, 2009a).

  • While significant differences can be found in comparisons of families without homes and those in the general population, few differences exist between extremely poor families with housing and those without housing (Culhane et al., 2007; Huntington, Buckner, & Bassuk, 2008).

  • Homelessness itself is a significant stressor for families. Negotiating a maze of bureaucratic agencies, sometimes daily, for housing and food is exhausting for all family members. Dislocation from possessions, neighborhoods, and important attachment figures, such as extended family members and friends, is destabilizing for children and adults alike (Cowan, 2007).

  • Families lose privacy when they enter shelters and are required to adhere to new rules and regulations, which can upset family hierarchies (Friedman, 2000).

  • Poor families are also more likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods, often in conditions that are unhealthy and unsafe (Garbarino, 2001).

Children & School

  • 50% of children without homes are under age 5 (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2009). A growing number of families experiencing homelessness have school-aged and adolescent children as well.

  • As a result of shelter regulations that bar children over a certain age, especially boys and adolescents of both genders, many older children are not included in census studies.

  • Additionally, the interface between homelessness and child welfare involvement results in many children being separated from parents and then placed in foster care. These children tend not to be reported in census studies of homelessness.

  • Children without homes have greater numbers of school absences, compromising their academic achievement as well as their school adjustment and self-esteem (Masten, Miliotis, Graham-Bermann, Ramirez, & Neeman, 1993).