Although they face problems most children don't even know about, homeless children are remarkably robust and resilient, a Stanford University study has found.
Reasonably healthy and surprisingly well-adjusted, they not only attend school fairly regularly but act like "little adults," helping their parents figure out how to pay bills and find food and places to sleep.
But 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 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.
Previous studies have focused on "the numbers, the obtrusiveness and the personal deficiencies" of homeless men and women 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 cannot rely on family or friends for 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.
While no one knows for certain how many homeless children there are nationwide, an estimated 1 million children will go without a home sometime this year, according to social scientists.
Although the vast majority of homeless families were headed by single parents, mostly mothers, nearly one in three families included a father and a 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 the study also found that many of the children cannot even imagine that they will ever go to college, let alone graduate.
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 exhibit physiological, psychological and behavioral problems.