CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — About 10 percent of children in low-income families reported at least one homeless episode – and an additional 24 percent had at least one episode where they lived “doubled up” with relatives, friends or other families – before age 6, according to a new study led by Jung Min Park, a faculty member in the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois.
The study, which followed 2,631 children in 20 large U.S. cities from birth to age 5, examined the extent of homelessness and doubled-up episodes among low-income families and the impact of housing status on children’s health outcomes. The research team examined five years of follow-up data on children’s health and their families’ backgrounds that was compiled for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which included nearly 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000.
“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 sheds light on 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.
Prior studies have indicated that physical and mental health problems are more common among homeless children than the general population, but there is mixed evidence as to whether children experiencing homelessness 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.
Children with a homeless episode were reported to have higher rates of physical disabilities than other low-income children who were stably housed or living doubled up. Children who experienced homelessness also had nearly double the rate of probable emotional or behavioral problems at 15 percent, versus 8 percent of children in the stably housed group.
The rate of asthma was notably high for all the children, ranging from 20-28 percent at age 5.
However, stressors common to children in poverty – such as low birth weight, poor maternal health and exposure to domestic violence – had more significant impacts on children’s health and cognitive development than episodes 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.”
Paul D. Allison, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Angela R. Fertig, an economist with interests in maternal and child health who is on the faculty of the University of Georgia-Athens, were co-authors of the study.
The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.
The research was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.