May 14, 2010

Defining “Family” Homelessness

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When I am researching family homelessness, the question that continues to recur is, what defines a family? In 2009, a two-parent homeless family made up 13.5 percent of the homeless population in Washington State, while a single woman with children made up nearly 27 percent of the population.

Not identified in this state report were children living in homeless situations with extended family members, such as a grandma or an aunt. According to a study by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly three million children lived with a grandparent without either parent present. That number increased to nearly seven million when parents had their parents living with them.

The problem with identifying families as only parents and children is that it may leave out the true head of the household. For instance, a grandfather may be the sole income generator for a single mother, but if they lose their apartment or house, the grandfather and granddaughter will more than likely have to be split up into different transitional housing units because units in the state only take what they classify as homeless women with children.

A broader definition of what creates a family needs to be determined to allow comprehensive services to be available to all types of families. There are families that are inter-generational and families with same-sex couples, families that take on the care for a friend’s child and families that consist of a brother and sister. Splitting these families up not only causes emotional stress, it also causes deep- rooted negative feelings towards agencies that may be trying to help them.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for setting boundaries and qualifications to be eligible for housing services. I just think the decision of what constitutes a family should be determined by a case-by-case basis guided by parameters. These parameters could include how long the family has lived together or if they were living together before losing their housing.

No two families are the same and taking a holistic approach to providing services can only enhance those services. Some organizations have already identified this issue and are working with families that may not be classified as traditional, such as families with grandparents or same-sex couples. Examples include the Compass Center and Solid Ground. Kudos to these organizations for identifying and responding to the world in which we currently live.

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