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Parenting and child experiences in shelter: A qualitative study exploring the effect of homelessness on the parent–child relationship

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Child & Family Social Work

Published online on


Depending on the data source, between half a million and 2.48 million children in families experience homelessness each year in the United States. Recent data suggest that approximately half of all homeless children are under the age of 6. A considerable body of quantitative research has documented the occurrence of poor outcomes associated with childhood homelessness in the domains of social–emotional development, physical and behavioral health, academic achievement, and family stability. This qualitative study presents results from 19 interviewers with formerly homeless parents reflecting upon how the experience of being homeless affected their young children and their ability to parent. Findings are contextualized within an attachment perspective. Parental reported effects included confusion, sadness, anxiety or depression, withdrawal, lack of appetite, aggression, and disregard for authority. Parents also talked about the disempowering experience of parenting while in shelter. Unexpectedly, parents of infants said their children were not affected by homelessness, and few parents identified the need for mental health services for their children. The experiences of parents with whom we spoke provide invaluable insight into what shelter staff, social service agencies, philanthropy, policymakers, and researchers can do to support and respect the parent–child relationship in families who are experiencing homelessness.