Families experiencing homelessness are under considerable stress. They move frequently and many are doubled-up in overcrowded apartments with relatives or friends. Others sleep in cars and campgrounds or send their children to stay with relatives to avoid shelter life. Once in shelter, families must quickly adjust to overcrowded, difficult, and uncomfortable circumstances. Despite the efforts of dedicated staff, many shelters are noisy, chaotic, and lack privacy. Homelessness increases the likelihood that families will separate or dissolve, which may compound the stress the family feels.

Families experiencing homelessness:

  • Are typically comprised of a mother in her late twenties with two children 1
    • 84% of families experiencing homelessness are female-headed.2
    • 42% of children in homeless families are under age six.3
  • More than half of all homeless mothers do not have a high school diploma.
  • 29% of adults in homeless families are working.
  • Have much higher rates of family separation than other low-income families.4

Mothers Experiencing Homelessness:

The impact of homelessness on mothers is profound. Many are sad, fearful, and hopeless. Mothers who are homeless have been victims of interpersonal violence. For them, the experience of homelessness is another major stressor layered on other traumas.

  • Over 92% have experienced severe physical and/or sexual abuse during their lifetime. For 63%, this abuse was perpetrated by an intimate partner.5
  • Mothers experiencing homelessness struggle with mental health issues.
    • About 50% have experienced a major depressive episode since becoming homeless.6
    • They have three times the rate of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) (36%) and twice the rate of drug and alcohol dependence (41%).
  • Mothers often are in poor physical health.7
    • Over one-third have a chronic physical health condition.
    • They have ulcers at four times the rate of other women.

The Relationship Between Homelessness and Family Separation:

Families who have experienced homelessness have much higher rates of family separation than other families.

  • Some separations are dictated by the shelter system.
    • About 55% of the cities surveyed by the US Conference of Mayors report that families may have to break up in order to be sheltered.8
  • Other family separations result from the stress of homelessness.
    • Families may send their children to stay with relatives to avoid shelter life.
    • One-fifth of homeless children are separated from their immediate family at some point.9
    • Foster care placement and homelessness are strongly linked.
    • Mothers with a childhood history of foster care placement are more likely to become homeless, and they tend to become homeless at an earlier age than those who do not have a foster care history.10
    • Homelessness is a barrier to reunification for families. At least 30% of children in foster care could return home if their parents had access to housing.11

[1] Burt, M. et al. (2000). America‘s Homeless II: Populations and Services (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute).
[2]Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. (2007). US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development. Available at www.huduser.org/Publications/pdf/ahar.pdf
[3] Burt, M. et al. (1999a). Homelessness: Programs and the People They Serve. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Available at www.urbaninstitute.org.
[4]Culhane, JF et al. (2003). Prevalence of child welfare services involvement among homeless and low-income mothers: A five year birth cohort study. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 30(3).
[5] Bassuk, EL et al. (1996). The characteristics and needs of sheltered homeless and low-income housed mothers. Journal of the American Medical Association, 276(8): 640-646.
[6]Weinreb, L. et al. (2006). A Comparison of the Health and Mental Health Status of Homeless Mothers in Worcester, Mass: 1993 and 2003. American Journal of Public Health. 96(8): 1444-1448.
[7]Weinreb, LF et al. (1998). The health characteristics and service use patterns of sheltered homeless and low-income housed mothers. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 13(1): 389-397.
[8] US Conference of Mayors. (2006). Hunger and Homelessness Survey. Available at www.usmayors.org.
[9]The National Center on Family Homelessness. (1999). Homeless Children: America’s New Outcasts.Newton, MA.
[10] Zlotnick, C. et al. (1998). Foster care children and family homelessness. American Journal of Public Health. 88(9): 1368-1370; Roman, N. et al. (1995). Web of Failure: The Relationship between Foster Care and Homelessness. Washington, DC: National Alliance to End Homelessness. Available at www.endhomelessness.org.
[11]Doerre, Y.A. et al. (1996). Home Sweet Home. Washington, DC: Children’s Welfare League of America Press.