Homelessness Amongst Children

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Homelessness amongst children in America is a pervasive problem. Indeed, and with child homelessness generally representing a corollary of parental poverty, structural in nature and driven by an insufficient social safety net, this points to a context in which the majority of childhood poverty results from predictors such as race, ethnicity and/or parental histories of mental illness and substance abuse. With almost half of homeless children being under the age of six years old, the vulnerability which these children experience on the street is incredibly salient. While a distinct category of runaway youth aged thirteen to sixteen faces some of the same challenges as these homeless children, the latter are likely the most vulnerable because of their young age, and because of their parents’ various afflictions.

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Examining the manner by which childhood homelessness affects development throughout the lifespan, homeless children are predisposed to developing mental illness, substance abuse difficulties, and to experiencing lifelong poverty of the same varieties experienced by their parents. Moreover, and because life on the street forces children to adopt age-inappropriate social norms and psychological coping mechanisms, children who were once homeless also have immense difficulties integrating into the school system, and the labor market. This thus predisposes children who experienced significant periods of homelessness to themselves be more likely to experience homelessness later in life, and often once they have children of their own.

Ultimately, and in working to mitigate childhood homelessness, the same best practices which work for homeless adults appear to be germane to homeless children. The Housing First paradigm, which advocates providing the homeless with a home even if substance abuse or other problems are present, must be put into place so as to provide essential services to these children and their families simultaneously. This is critical because this approach to mitigating homelessness is one which allows children to return to normalcy as soon as possible by reintegrating the school system and their peer group in a manner which detracts from the otherwise significant long term effects of childhood homelessness.

Child Homelessness in America: An Overview

Beginning with an overview of child homelessness in America itself, it is estimated that approximately one in thirty children will experience some degree of homelessness in a given year. While statistics pertaining to full-time homelessness are not available because of the inherent difficulty associated with tracking transient homeless populations, these data nevertheless reflect the fact that housing security for children in the United States is very problematic. With these data thus suggesting that between two and three million American children will experience homelessness in a given year, and with most such children experiencing it more than once, homelessness amongst children is a serious yet neglected social problem in contemporary America (Morton et al., 14-17)

Demographically speaking, what is perhaps most troubling about child homelessness is that over 50% of homeless children are under the age of six. Disproportionately members of visible minority groups, homeless children are typically left on the street, almost always living with parents when under the age of thirteen, subsequent to a parent’s job loss and/or eviction. This said, many such children also have parents who suffer from significant mental health issues and/or substance abuse troubles. In this respect then, child homelessness must absolutely be viewed as a direct consequence of adult poverty (Morton et al., 19-20).

In examining and analyzing the specific forms of poverty which bring about child homelessness, these appear to be structural in nature. Indeed, and because child homelessness is so disproportionately present amongst communities of color, immigrant communities as well as in households featuring mental health or substance abuse problems, intersectionality is associated with this homelessness. These children have simply not benefited from equality of opportunity inasmuch as they have usually been born into poverty, and neglected by social safety net programs such as Social Security and Section 8 housing (Roschelle, 999-1001).

From this, it must be recognized that homelessness amongst American children is a mirror image of poverty in America more broadly. In other words then, the factors which make parents more likely to be poor are also more likely to lead children to be homeless. Writ-large then, child homelessness emerges as a phenomenon which is manageable if those who are at risk for losing their homes are identified by social services agencies (Roschelle, 1003-1005) .

This said, and while the majority of homeless children live with family, a separate analytical category of homeless youth, typically conceived of as being aged thirteen to seventeen, has been found to live independent of any traditional family structures. These children, numbering somewhere between 500 thousand and 1 million at any given time, are made up of abandoned and runaway children. This group differs from the broader group of homeless children on the basis of familial structures, reasons for homelessness as well as individual rates of homelessness and substance abuse (Snyder et al. 90-92).

Ultimately then, poverty is the principal determinant of homelessness amongst children. While a small portion of older runaways and abandoned youth find themselves living on the streets for different reasons, poverty is the common denominator across all homeless children and their parents (Bassuk et al., 86-88). From this baseline then, attacking homelessness requires attacking childhood poverty and the various corollaries which it generates in terms of predisposing certain youth and their families to conditions of homelessness.

The Developmental Trajectories of Homeless Children

In the context of this child and youth homelessness, it is necessary to recognize that children are likely to be forced to develop characteristics associated with independence from an earlier age that it average. Indeed, studies of homeless populations show high levels of pragmatism, independence and problem-solving orientations amongst these youth. This said, the dark side of this anomalous development is early exposure to drugs, alcohol, inappropriate sexual advances, violence, and other phenomena which are typically viewed as being negative by society, and parents (Whitbeck, 24-25).

This thus leads to the conclusion that homeless children and youth must precociously develop structures of adaptation which allow them to navigate the vagaries of the street. Given that such adaptation requires that they take on adult roles from a young age, it is thus critical to take into account that being homeless fundamentally alters the psychological and social norms internalized by these youth. In such contexts, later integrating into normative structures such as those associated with the educational system or with labor market is problematic because of the alternative behavioral norms which are internalized from such a young age (Whitbeck, 27-28).

Tangibly then, child homelessness is very problematic as it pertains to academic performance and the ability to work normally in a mainstream setting. Because of the alternative patterns of socialization which homeless children undergo, especially in contexts wherein normal parental supervision is absent or minimal, the types of problem-solving strategies developed by these children do not function optimally in school or in the labor market. Writ-large then, it is the alternative form of socialization which occurs in the context of homelessness which represents one of the principal structures generating the longer term effects of the phenomenon on the children who must live through it (Vissing, 34-38).

From this, it is unsurprising that the complex trauma arising in children from homelessness engenders disproportionately high rates of mental illness and substance abuse amongst children who experience homelessness. With the dislocating nature of childhood homelessness leading to incredibly significant issues with attachment all the while homeless children gain access to drugs and alcohol from a young age, the problematic relationship between childhood homelessness and these issues is one which ultimately pervades the lifecycle, and generates a context in which the homeless child’s predisposition to these conditions ultimately represents a lifelong affliction (Herbers et al., 1167-1169)

Because of these difficulties, children who experience periods of homelessness are disproportionately likely to experience homelessness later in the lifecycle or themselves experience homelessness alongside their own children. Indeed, the dysfunctional nature of parenting amongst most homeless families produces a context in which homeless children come to lack the support structures associated with their non-homeless peers. Combined with the integrative difficulties and trauma discussed above, this produces a situation in which homelessness is likely to recur in the life of the homeless child (Narayan et al., 3)

In the tradition of a vicious cycle, childhood homelessness thus appears to be a potent inter-generational phenomenon in which the risk for homelessness of one generation is transmitted to another. In this respect, it once again mirrors the broader vicious cycle of inter-generational structural poverty inasmuch as the same factors which predispose an individual and their family to living in poverty also serve to engender a heightened likelihood of homelessness. From this, and because structural causes require structural solutions, redressing child homelessness in America requires modifying the structures of resources available to homeless children and their families (Cutuli et al., 43-35).

Absent such changes, the lifecycle deteriorations which are experienced by homeless children are so significant that a period of childhood homelessness can deprive a child of equality of opportunity for their entire life. Combining poor school and job market integration with higher rates of susceptibility to drug addiction and mental health pathology development, childhood homelessness is inherently traumatic. Because it breaks the forms of stable attachment which are necessary for optimizing a child’s development, homelessness thus represents something which causes harm throughout the entirety of an individual’s life.

Housing First as the Best Practice for Managing Childhood Homelessness

With these chilling realities of childhood homelessness in mind, the Housing First paradigm represents the optimal intervention for dealing with homeless children and their families. Fundamentally, the Housing First approach differs from, other public policy approaches to homelessness in that it does not impose conditions on the homeless individual before providing them with shelter. While some programs require that a given homeless person is drug free or medicine-compliant for a certain period prior to receiving shelter, the Housing First approach eponymously provides program recipients with housing prior to the initiation of treatment or other necessary interventions (Guo et al., 73-75).

Demonstrating its strong efficacy, the Housing First paradigm has shown efficacy rates of over 70% in terms of mitigating the recurrence of homelessness across multiple studies. This is of critical importance because these studies analyze the program as applied to even the most difficult cases wherein homeless individuals are addicted to a given substance or are dealing with a significant mental health issue. From this perspective then, the Housing First approach is, when appropriately implemented, aptly designed so as to meet the needs of homeless children and their families attempting to emerge from structural poverty (Guo et al., 78-79).

Applied to homeless children and their parents, the principal virtue of the Housing First approach is that it allows children to be rapidly reintegrated into the normalcy of structures such as school and peer groups. Concomitantly allowing parents to deal with the root economic, substance-related or medical issues which occurred prior to them becoming homeless, this paradigm is thus one which has not only proven itself to be successful across all populations but which also offers solutions which dramatically diminish the direct burden of homelessness as it is experienced by children (Guo et al., 74-78)

Moreover, the indirect effects of housing first are also significant. Once housing is provided, a child’s parents can receive treatment for the mental health difficulties or substance abuse problems which may have landed them on the street in the very first place. This is extremely important inasmuch as it serves to enhance stability in the household, and generate a context in which the child is less likely to continue experiencing the trauma which they experienced in the street. From this, stabilization is not only necessary in the context of the child’s daily life but also in relation to the child’s rearing (Nelson et al., 592-594).

Housing first also puts the child in a situation in which they can receive basic medical care as well as psychological or psychiatric assistance for dealing with the trauma which they may have experienced while living on the streets. This is another absolutely critical element of recovery inasmuch as it serves to mitigate the otherwise significant trauma which all homeless children eventually develop. With this trauma having the long-term potential to bring about significantly negative mental health outcomes and substance abuse difficulties, the access to this treatment which is associated with the provision of care in the housing first context is critical for minimizing the characteristics of the vicious cyclical model discussed above (Chatterjee et al., pp. 1377-1380).

Writ-large then, the aggregate benefits of housing first are tied to the structure which it brings back to the lives of children who are affected by poverty and homelessness. Because living on the street withdraws the child from the socializing structures of school and the peer group all the while exposing them to chaotic forces such as those associated with drugs, alcohol, sexual behavior and other adult phenomena, housing first’s structure is critical for restoring the normalcy of a structure of childhood socialization. It thus serves to potently reverse the otherwise significant lifecycle and structurally-generated consequences of homelessness amongst children and their parents (Padgett et al., 12-15).

Problematically, funding for homelessness mitigation, even when children are involved, is very much lacking in the context of the public sector social safety net. With the housing first paradigm being exceedingly costly because of the infrastructural investments necessitated by its focus on providing housing, this points to a situation in which governmental resources for aiding homeless children and their families are sorely lacking. Absent significant investment in these resources, the rapid and parsimonious benefits of the housing first model thus appear to be impossible to leverage to their full potential (Padgett et al., 25-30).


In the end, childhood homelessness is problematic in three ways. First, it wreaks immense pain and suffering on children who are forced to grow on the street. Second, it engenders lifelong consequences which can affect these children’s abilities to earn equality of opportunity, and thus have a chance to themselves live lives of prosperity. Third and finally, child homelessness appears to be ignored by policy-makers. With so many of these families simply falling through even the most basic of the elements of the social safety net, the avoidable nature of childhood homelessness is perhaps one of its most tragic components.

In this context, and considering the success which the housing first paradigm has demonstrated when applied optimally, the lack of funding available for helping homeless families, and preventing homelessness in cases where children are involved is deeply troubling from a social point of view. Indeed, and because the long term consequences of childhood homelessness are so very salient in nature, the financial and human costs of failing to avert childhood homelessness are perhaps greater than the costs of preventing it in the very first place. Because of this, it very much appears that the resources currently available for preventing and managing childhood homelessness are direly insufficient for achieving their objectives.

Ultimately then, and with American society predicated on the notion of equality of opportunity for all, the consequences of childhood homelessness are far too severe to be ignored. As such, more significant resources must be devoted to providing assistance to homeless children and their families so that homeless children can gain some semblance of access to normal life. With early reintegration into the school system and peer group so crucial for mitigating the significant lifecycle effects of childhood homelessness, additional governmental investment in the housing first approach appears to be critical to putting an end to this crisis.

Works Cited

  1. Bassuk, Ellen L, Molly K Richard, and Alexander Tsertsvadze. “The Prevalence of Mental Illness in Homeless Children: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 54.2 (2015): 86-96. e2. Print.
  2. Chatterjee, Avik, et al. “Quality Health Care for Homeless Children: Achieving the Aap Recommendations for Care of Homeless Children and Youth.” Journal of health care for the poor and underserved 28.4 (2017): 1376-92. Print.
    Cutuli, JJ, et al. “Adversity and Children Experiencing Family Homelessness: Implications for Health.” Journal of Children and Poverty 23.1 (2017): 41-55. Print.
  3. Herbers, Janette E, et al. “Trauma, Adversity, and ParentChild Relationships among Young Children Experiencing Homelessness.” Journal of abnormal child psychology 42.7 (2014): 1167-74. Print.
  4. Morton, Matthew H, et al. “Prevalence and Correlates of Youth Homelessness in the United States.” Journal of Adolescent Health 62.1 (2018): 14-21. Print.
  5. Narayan, Angela J, et al. “Intergenerational Continuity of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Homeless Families: Unpacking Exposure to Maltreatment Versus Family Dysfunction.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 87.1 (2017): 3. Print.
  6. Nelson, Geoffrey, et al. “Life Changes among Homeless Persons with Mental Illness: A Longitudinal Study of Housing First and Usual Treatment.” Psychiatric Services 66.6 (2015): 592-97. Print.
  7. Padgett, Deborah, Benjamin F Henwood, and Sam J Tsemberis. Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Transforming Systems, and Changing Lives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2016. Print.
  8. Roschelle, Anne R. “Our Lives Matter: The Racialized Violence of Poverty among Homeless Mothers of Color.” Sociological Forum 32.3 (2017): 998-1017. Print.
  9. Snyder, Susan M, et al. “Homeless Youth, Strain, and Justice System Involvement: An Application of General Strain Theory.” Children and youth services review 62 (2016): 90-96. Print.
  10. Vissing, Yvonne. Out of Sight, out of Mind: Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Print.
  11. Whitbeck, L.B. Nowhere to Grow: Homeless and Runaway Adolescents and Their Families. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017. Print.
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Homelessness Amongst Children. (2019, Mar 26). Retrieved March 22, 2023 , from

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