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Fluency in English aids escape from homelessness

STANFORD -- Homeless families who know how the social service system works and whose members speak English fluently probably have a better chance of getting government help with housing than those who don't, a study of 596 homeless families and 97 formerly homeless families in two California counties indicates.

As part of the Stanford Studies of Homeless Families, Children and Youth, researchers attempted to find out why some homeless families are more successful than others in finding a home.

When adults in formerly homeless families were asked, "What helped you get out of homelessness?" the three most frequent responses were: an increase in income; being able to stay with family and friends; access to affordable housing.

One in four said specifically that they were helped by the Housing Assistance Program, part of California's Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The housing program, provides temporary shelter to families while they look for permanent housing and helps them pay the first month's rent and deposit when they find it.

Researchers cautioned that those who got help through government-assisted housing programs are likely to be overrepresented in the study of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, because most of the formerly homeless families interviewed were located through lists provided by social service agencies.

However, "within this service-oriented group of formerly homeless families, personal characteristics did not seem crucial in getting out of homelessness," said Sanford Dornbusch, the Stanford University sociologist who directed the studies.

"The levels of substance abuse and mental illness among formerly homeless families were virtually identical to those of the homeless families," he said. "More important, there seemed to be no greater level of energy, organization and personal initiative among families who got out of homelessness compared with families who were currently homeless."

Those who were no longer homeless scored as low as homeless families when they were asked to name specific strategies and tangible steps to stay out or get out of homelessness, he said.

"This finding questions the 'bootstrap theory,' at least for those who have been helped by service agencies," Dornbusch said. "The housing programs somewhat arbitrarily serve some families and not others.

"Our most powerful finding was that families who were not fluent in English were much less likely to have even heard of programs like the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Housing Assistance Program or the Section 8 housing program. Lack of English was a huge barrier to understanding and using the service delivery system.

"Within the sample of formerly homeless families, only 18 percent of the Hispanics of Mexican descent reported problems speaking English," he said. "In the homeless sample, however, the proportion having problems speaking English was much larger, 76 percent."

Even when the researchers compared those families who had been in the United States for a similar length of time, language fluency still made a difference in who was likely to get government aid.

In interviews with researchers, Dornbusch said, "numerous Hispanics of Mexican descent expressed a desire that training in English be made more available to adults like them. They recognized lack of fluency in English as a problem affecting access to services."



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