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Homeless Families

Adaptations To Homelessness

Probably the least researched but most common adaptation to homelessness is that of living with another poor family on a very temporary basis. This is referred to as doubling-up and is often a precursor to life on the streets, or in encampments and shelters. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 1999 there were 1,428,000 unrelated subfamilies or .5 percent of the total family population. These subfamilies are generally thought to be the doubled-up. Their poverty rate was 39 percent in contrast to the 10 percent poverty rate of all families (U.S. Census Bureau 2000).

The pioneering work of Janet Fitchen (1996) on rural homelessness in New York State documented that a frequent response to poverty was to squeeze two families into a trailer or apartment that was already too small for one. These arrangements were often short-lived, as the strain of the situation made life unbearable. Doubling-up was associated with a worsening economy in rural areas due to the large loss of manufacturing jobs and the rise of single motherhood in which income (through work or welfare) was not adequate to pay rent. Fitchen (1992) also found that at times enforcing building codes on a family living in a crumbling farmhouse or a tarpaper-sided shack pushed a family from being a homeowner to being a renter of unaffordable apartments, and eventually, into homelessness.

Anna Lou Dehavenon (1996) documented the relationship between doubling-up and homelessness in New York City's Emergency Assistance Units (EAUs) program, which places homeless families in temporary shelters. The EAUs' policy was to send homeless families back into doubledup situations, from which 78 percent of them had just come. Although 92 percent of the guest families paid the host families rent, the guest families could not live together in these severely overcrowded conditions.

In the developing world the major adaptation to homelessness for hundreds of thousands of people is to live in squatter settlements. Squatting, as a generic term, refers to building a shelter of easily found materials on property to which one has no legal claim. These settlements are known by many terms, including bidonvilles (tin cities) in Africa, favelas in Brazil, and pueblos jovénes (young towns) in Peru, and pavement dwellers in India. The harsh realities of living in a Brazilian favela were documented by Carolina De Jesus in the now-classic Child of the Dark (1963), one of the few such first-person accounts.

Although squatter settlements were initially thought of as temporary, makeshift arrangements for new rural migrants to urban areas, by the late 1960s, squatter settlements were seen as rational alternatives to the housing shortage for low-income people (Turner 1976). Some governments shifted from a policy of demolishing the settlements to projects bringing them clean water, sanitation, electricity, and security of tenure. Critics of governmental encouragement of self-help point out that this absolves governments from committing significant amounts of money to housing their population and also reduces the wage requirements of workers by giving them access to low-cost housing.

In an in-depth study of the squatters of vacant public housing in and around Paris, Guy Boudimbou (1992) found that most of the squatters were Northern and West African immigrant families who faced significant housing discrimination. One form of adaptation was for a network of squatters to move from one vacant building to another, sometimes with the help of "managers," some of whom collected the rent but were not able to produce an apartment.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesHomeless Families - Prevalence Of Family Homelessness, Causes Of Family Homelessness, Adaptations To Homelessness, Contrasting The Poor-but-housed With Homeless Families