In low-income families, about 10 percent of children have experienced at least one homeless episode, and an additional 24 percent have lived “doubled up” with relatives, friends, or other families before age 6.
This according to a new study led by Jung Min Park, a faculty member in the school of Social Work at the University of Illinois.
Researchers followed 2,631 children from birth to age 5 in 20 large U.S. cities and observed the degree of homelessness and doubling-up episodes among low-income families. They also noted whether the housing situations affected the children’s health.
The researchers also examined the family backgrounds and children’s health from five years of follow-up data compiled for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which included nearly 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000.
Children with a homeless episode experienced higher rates of physical disabilities than other low-income children who were stably housed or living doubled up. These children also had nearly double the rate of probable emotional or behavioral problems at 15 percent, compared to 8 percent of children in the stably housed group.
The rate of asthma was significantly high for all the children, ranging from 20 to 28 percent at age 5.
“Both homelessness and doubling-up are important measures of precarious housing status,” Park said. “This is the first study, to our knowledge, that provides estimates of both homelessness and doubling up among young children. All together, about a third of the children in the study experienced either homelessness or doubling-up before they reached 6 years old.”
The study brings attention to housing instability as a common experience among low-income families, Park said.
“The scope of housing instability among children and families would be underestimated if we only focus on people living on the street or in shelters,” Park said.
Previous studies have suggested that physical and mental health problems are more common among homeless children than the general population, but there is mixed evidence as to whether homeless children differ from other low-income children on health outcomes, Park said.
“Children in poverty, whether homeless or housed, share many of the same risk factors for health problems; therefore, it is difficult to determine which of these risk factors is linked to health outcomes as well as homelessness,” Park said.
However, stressors common to children in poverty — including low birth weight, poor maternal health, and domestic violence — had stronger impacts on children’s health and cognitive development than situations of homelessness or doubling up, the research team found.
“The findings indicate that it is important to identify and respond to parental and familial needs common to many low-income families — in addition to providing housing assistance — to more effectively improve the health and development of children in housing instability, particularly those in homeless families,” Park said. “Homelessness or doubling-up is just one of many stressors in their lives.”
Source: University of Illinois