Study finds homeless kids healthy now, damaged later

November 19, 1991|By Anne C. Roark | Anne C. Roark,Los Angeles Times

THOUGH THEY face problems most children don't even know about, homeless children are remarkably robust and resilient, a new Stanford University study has found. Reasonably healthy and surprisingly well-adjusted, homeless children not only attend school fairly regularly but act like "little adults" helping their parents figure out how to pay bills, find food and places to sleep.

But the study also shows there are limits to this resilience. Even after short bouts of homelessness, children are damaged psychologically and physically, in ways that often do not show up until after their families find permanent housing.

This surprising, at times dismal, portrait of children without homes was drawn by researchers at the Stanford Center for the Study of Families, Children and Youth. The report, which comprises nine studies, is thought to be the most comprehensive analyses done thus far on homeless children and their parents.

Previous studies have focused on "the numbers, the obtrusiveness and the personal deficiencies" of homeless men and women who are seen panhandling on city street corners, said Sanford Dornbusch, a Stanford sociologist and director of the project. "This study was designed to focus on the processes that lead families into and out of homelessness and the impact that homelessness has on those families, especially on children."

The general perception is that homeless people are drug users, alcoholics or mentally ill. That is not true of homeless parents, especially Latinos and blacks who make up a disproportionately large percentage of the population of homeless families, according to the researchers.

The families are usually homeless because they do not have enough money to pay for housing and have neither family nor friends who have enough room in their own houses or apartments to help.

The conclusions are based on interviews with 1,021 adults and 1,720 children in the California counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo in 1990 and 1991. Although based on reasonably affluent sections of Northern California where housing prices are especially high, the findings are generalizable throughout the United States as a whole because of the number of subjects involved and the in-depth nature of the interviews, Dornbusch said.

While no one knows for certain how many homeless children there are nationwide, an estimated million children will be without a home for some period of time this year, according to social scientists. These children and their mothers, according to the National Academy of Sciences, are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population.

Although the vast majority of homeless families were headed by single parents, mostly mothers, nearly one in three families included father and mother, a finding that surprised the researchers.

Another unexpected aspect of the study is how many homeless children attend school: nearly 90 percent. That is a far higher figure than had been previously estimated, according Dr. Ellen Bassuk, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of a mid-1980s study on the homeless in Massachusetts

But for most homeless youngsters, school does not seem to be enough to overcome the trauma of having no place to call home.

The study found that many of the children cannot even imagine that they will ever go to college, let alone graduate. While 68 percent of a sample of all secondary school students in the two counties studied thought they would earn their college degrees, only 43 percent of the homeless children had such expectations of themselves.

Like children everywhere, homeless children tell of their dreams of growing up to be ballerinas, sports stars, doctors, lawyers. But few of them believe their dreams will ever come true. Some doubt that they will ever lead normal lives.

When asked what he thought he would be when he grew up, one 12-year-old boy replied, "I won't have a job. I'll do nothing, just sit around, if I have a place to sit around -- if I'm not dead."

Homeless children are "survival-oriented," the researchers found. When given three wishes, they do not escape into fantasy but have concrete desires about getting a bed to sleep in, a car to drive, food to eat.

As one formerly homeless mother described her 2 1/2 -year-old daughter, "She's a 35-year-old midget. She's aware of too much."

By quietly postponing the expression of their own needs, they often help their parents, but they clearly pay a price for their stoicism. Once their families find permanent housing, many formerly homeless children start to exhibit physiological, psychological and behavioral problems, according to their parents. The most common reported problems are depression, sadness, disobedience, chronic illnesses such as asthma and acute illnesses such as colds and skin diseases.

Just as homelessness seems to rob children of their childhood, it robs them of their parents. While they are homeless, children seldom play with their parents or have fun with family members.

A 6-year-old girl in a family shelter was asked what makes her happy. "When my mom plays with me. She hardly ever does."

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