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Homeless families' relatives have less space to share

STANFORD -- It isn't a shortage of helpful relatives but relatives with a shortage of living space to share that leads some poor families into homelessness, the Stanford Studies of Homeless Families, Children and Youth indicate.

"Poverty and the lack of affordable housing are crucial problems, which put many families at risk of homelessness, but not all families faced with such problems become homeless," said Sanford Dornbusch, a Stanford University professor of sociology who directed the research by eight faculty and 35 students. Among other things, they attempted to find what personal or socioeconomic factors correlated with homelessness among families in two California counties - San Mateo and Santa Clara.

This was done by comparing three groups of poor families: those who were homeless, those who sought some government services but were not homeless, and those who had managed to escape homelessness.

They found that "the at-risk group could rely more on their parents, siblings and other relatives for shared housing," Dornbusch said. "When sharing housing with their relatives, the homeless families experienced more crowded conditions than at- risk families."

Those who had lived in the most crowded conditions with relatives also reported more family discord, which indicates that the discord is "produced by a lack of relatives' resources more than it is produced by relatives' unwillingness to help," the sociologist said.

Alcohol and drug abuse by parents was not a factor causing family discord and homelessness, except in one subgroup of the counties' homeless population: non-Hispanic whites, Dornbusch said. The homeless families in that category more often pointed to family discord resulting from substance abuse as a source of their homelessness, and reported more substance abuse than did at-risk white families who had not been homeless.

Overall, researchers found that the 808 adults in the 596 homeless families studied tended to have more in common with their poor but not homeless peers than they did with single homeless individuals in other studies.

Among the findings:

Homeless parents tended to be less educated and less likely to have had a history of full-time employment than did the homeless individuals.

In the two counties, 20 percent of the total population are Hispanics, including non-Mexicans, and 4 percent are African Americans, indicating families from both groups are much more likely to become homeless than whites, who are 70 percent of the population. The study found almost no homeless Asian American families in the two counties.

Even with two parents earning the minimum wage, Dornbusch noted, a family with several children probably cannot afford a home in the San Jose/San Francisco Bay Area, where the monthly median rent for a studio apartment in 1990 ranged from $514 to $617, the highest median rents in the nation.

Crowded housing factors

Researchers found that all three nuclear family groups had a pattern of living, at one time or another, in an extended family - with parents, siblings or other relatives. When those who were homeless at the time of the study had lived with relatives, however, the crowding had been much greater, averaging 2.1 persons per room compared with 1.2 for the at-risk families. That's more than eight persons in a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and living room - twice the federal government's standard for crowded housing.

"The dissipation of social support from relatives is not surprising in the context of such over-crowded living conditions," Dornbusch said. "Over time, severe crowding might produce family discord and force some families to leave their relatives' homes and become homeless."

This means that large families or families whose relatives are also poor are at more risk of becoming homeless than others, Dornbusch said.

"It is not as if everybody is one paycheck away from homelessness," said Melissa Beacham, the coordinator of the study projects. "Many of us have friends and family in the area with space to share, while others do not.

"One family in our study told us they came here from Texas when the husband's plant closed. A relative had bragged about how well he was doing in California, but when the family got here, they discovered their relative was homeless."

Overall, the homeless families did not have fewer relatives who could help them than those who were not homeless. There was, however, more family discord in the homeless families, and it was more related to the circumstances of crowding than to personal habits such as drinking or taking drugs.

Ethnic differences in substance abuse

Because other studies have found a high rate of drug and alcohol abuse among homeless single individuals, the Stanford researchers expected to find that it was also a contributor to homelessness of families.

Drug or alcohol abuse was a factor causing family discord and homelessness for only one ethnic group - non-Hispanic whites.

Non-Hispanic white homeless families had the highest levels of alcohol and drug abuse - 63 percent compared with 36 percent among African American families and 18 percent among Hispanic families of Mexican descent. Only among the whites was substance abuse higher among the homeless families than among other poor families who were not homeless.

The white homeless families were also more likely to cite personal problems as a reason for their homelessness. For homeless families overall, the larger factor was the level of social support available from parents, siblings and other relatives.



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