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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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The changing nature of homelessness: the American picture

Colleen Kasting and Sybille Artz

According to Nunez and Caruzo (2003), there have been three distinct waves of family homelessness in the United States. In the first instance, in the 1980's, homelessness was viewed as an emergency housing problem. Fires, hazardous living conditions, and personal calamities were the primary cause of family homelessness. Shelters were built to house families temporarily while they looked to find something affordable. Many were helped to find and maintain adequate accommodation through housing subsidies. However, federal policies for reducing the number of housing subsidies and the dismantling of social service programs left more and more families without the means to afford a place to live.

In the 1990's, the second wave of homelessness became one of sustained poverty. Service providers noticed a change in homeless families. Homeless people tended to be younger, less educated and poorer than those of the 1980's. Recognizing that homelessness was not going to disappear, policy makers and community members began to study the effects of homelessness on homeless families, and tried to set up programs and policies to help these families make the best of their situations (Cumella, Grattan, Vostanis, 1998). For example, special schools and day care centres were. set up for children who were homeless (Nunez, 1994). Federal responses included the Steward B. McKinney Homelessness Assistance Act of 1987 that established the Education of Homeless Children and Youth program. This Act ensured that homeless children had the same access to public education as all other children (Buckner, Bassuk, Weinreb, 2001). In other words, homelessness began to be treated as a fact of life in the social fabric that required targeted services beyond helping people to find shelter.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a third wave in how American society views and, therefore, responds to homelessness. This third wave is characterized by a sense that the problem is here to stay and has reached overwhelming proportions. Nunez and Caruso (2003) estimate that in the United States, over one million children live in shelters and that millions more are on the brink of homelessness. They also note that child poverty in the US is the highest of all industrialized countries because "limited public assistance and a booming, then faltering, economy, have destabilized millions of families and ultimately forced thousands into homelessness" (p. 1). Canada follows directly behind (Allan, 2000; Glenday & Duffy, 2001).

Homelessness in Canada
In Canada homelessness has become a major concern. The Big City Mayors' Caucus declared homelessness a National Disaster in 1998 (Federation of Canadian Municipalities' National Affordable Housing Strategy, 2000). The problem was growing to such an extent that elected officials publicly asked for federal and provincial governments' help. For example, in the City of Toronto alone, the number of people staying in their emergency shelters rose by 40%, from 22,000 in 1988 to nearly 30,000 in 1999, and the number of children has increased by 130% from 2,700 to 6,200 in the same time period (City of Toronto, 2001). Other Canadian cities note similar increases in their homeless population.1

In British Columbia, there are a limited number of shelters for homeless families. Government priority, instead, had been to develop longer-term housing (both second stage and permanent housing) rather than emergency shelters. Presently in British Columbia, government policy has shifted so that virtually no subsidized housing units are being built for families. For those families with little money and no housing, there are few choices except to bunk in with friends or family. This means that many such families continually move from one place to another, so the extent to which families experience homelessness is largely hidden. Given the hidden quality of the problem and the absence of a centralized data base, estimating the number of homeless families in British Columbia is problematic, although one recent study stated that in the Greater Vancouver Regional District, 15% of all lone parent families or approximately 10,000 families were at risk of becoming homeless (Allan, 2000; Woodward, Eberle, Kraus, Graves, & May 2002). How many of those who were absolutely homeless is unknown.

In Greater Victoria, a collection of municipalities numbering 340,000 people, where rental costs are among the highest in Canada and the vacancy rate among the lowest, the situation is similar. Many families who can no longer afford their housing move into the homes of friends or relatives. Such arrangements are often stressful and short-lived, because frequently, conflict often breaks out and the family is asked to leave. With few resources and nowhere to go, such families (most of them headed by lone parent mothers) eventually are provided with crisis funds to move into a motel where they may spend, in many cases, months waiting for suitable housing (Kasting, 2004, personal communication with local homeless families outreach staff).


1. Big city Mayors' Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities refers to the mayors of 22 of Canada's largest cities who meet to discuss common issues and present a collective voice on those issues.


Allan, T. C. (2000). Someone to Talk To: Care and Control of the Homeless. Halifax, Fernwood Publishing.

Buckner, J., Bassuk, E., & Weinreb, L. (2001). Predictors of Academic Achievement among Homeless and Low-income Housed Children. Journal of School of Psychology, 39, 1.pp. 45-69.

City of Toronto (2001). Toronto Report Card on Homelessness. Toronto, ON:

Cumella, S., Grattan, E., & Vostanis, P (1998). The mental health of children in homeless families and their contact with health, education and social services. Health and Social Care in the Community, 6,5. pp. 331-342.

Glenday, D. & Duffy, A. (Eds). (2001). In Canadian Society: Meeting the Challenges of the Twenty-First Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nunez, R. (1994). Access to Success: Meeting the Educational needs of Homeless Children and Families. Social Work in Education, 16, 1. pp. 2130.

Nunez, R. & Caruso, L. (2003). Are Shelters the Answer to Family Homelessness? US Today 131, 2692. pp. 46-49.

Woodward, J. and Associates, Eberle Planning and Research, Deborah Kraus Consulting, Judy Graves and May. (2002). Research Project on Homelessness in Greater Vancouver. Greater Vancouver Regional District, Burnaby, BC.

Kasting, C. and Artz, S. (2005). Homeless outreach projects for single parent families: What happens to the children. Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, 6, 1. pp. 28-31.

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