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Mental Health Challenges Facing Homeless Parents And Children Living In Shelters And Transitional Housing

A new paper from North Carolina State University calls for more research on how to help with children who are facing mental-health problems, as well as changes in how shelters are treating these families.

“We wanted to lay out the specific mental-health challenges facing homeless parents and children living in shelters and transitional housing,” says Dr. Mary , a professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the paper. “This is important, because at any point in time there are approximately one million families with children who are homeless in the United States.”

The paper includes recommendations on shelter practices and future research. The paper was authored by researchers from NC State, Kutztown University, the and the University of Kansas.

The paper calls on shelters to take a “trauma informed” approach to their operations, meaning shelter staff should be aware that most families they serve have had traumatic experiences that shape the way they view the world. “This should be accounted for in the shelter’s rules and regulations, and inform the services they provide,” Haskett says. “Very few shelters currently take this approach.”

For example, homeless families often feel the need to be able to close and lock doors to their personal space to feel safe. Many shelters do not allow this, because they want to be able to monitor residents’ activities.

Future research should focus on parenting in homeless families, Haskett says.

“The mental-health community knows a lot about parenting approaches and interventions that help parents and reduce the risk of child maltreatment. But we don’t know how to modify these approaches so they can be successful in a shelter environment. We need more research in this area, to give us a solid foundation for developing approaches that can help homeless families.”

The paper was written under the auspices of the American Psychological Association’s task force on promoting in the context of family homelessness, which is co-chaired by Haskett and paper lead author Dr. Staci Perlman of Kutztown University. The work was done in conjunction with a task force of the American Orthopsychiatric Association that also focuses on issues pertaining to homelessness.

The paper, “Promoting Positive Parenting in the Context of Homelessness,” was co-authored by Dr. Beryl Ann Cowan, a psychologist in private practice; Dr. of the University of Minnesota; and of the University of Kansas. The paper was published this month in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

“Promoting Positive Parenting in the Context of Homelessness”

Abstract: Recent national reports suggest that nearly 1,000,000 families with children experience homelessness, and that this number is rising (National Center on Family Homelessness, 2009; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2010; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2011). Families experiencing homelessness are disproportionately more likely to have experienced economic, health, and social risk factors. These experiences can adversely influence the parent-child relationship. The purpose of this article is to: (a) review the literature on the determinants and contextual issues of parenting in shelters; (b) describe specific programs that are focused on positive parenting in the context of homelessness; and (c) provide practice, research, and policy recommendations for supporting positive parenting among families living without homes.


Authors: Staci M. Perlman, Kutztown University; Beryl Ann Cowan; Abigail Gewirtz, University of Minnesota; Mary Haskett, North Carolina State University; and Lauren Stokes, the University of Kansas
Published: August 2012, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry
North Carolina State University