I spent my first year out of college living in a 550 square foot one-bedroom apartment in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, MN.  Although certainly not the most dangerous neighborhood in the Twin Cities metro, Phillips does have a bit of sorrid reputation.  It is not wealthy; my building was across the street from Little Earth, a housing project for Native American residents.  In my building with a grand total of eight other 550 square foot one-bedroom apartments, there were four different languages spoken.  On my side of the block, Somaliland and Haiti were represented along with both Native America, and the America who thought President Bush was, quite literally, God’s gift to America.  I fit in on my street.  In spite of my white skin, I felt a sense of kinship with my neighbors.  My neighbors were out of much greater challenges than college, but we were all trying to find our way to Aldis, the post office, and an independence of our own design.

As much as I enjoyed living in my Minneapolis apartment, I did have some unexpected encounters.   One night, I came home from work at 5PM and looking out my side window I saw someone I didn’t recognize pull the screen off the window directly below mine.  The man climbed in the window, and a woman’s voice screamed.  I called the police.  They came, and as it turned out, the tenant who had been renting the apartment below mine, hadn’t actually been living in it for some time.  He had kept his key, but was letting some friends stay in the apartment.  Due to the “Do Not Copy” engraved on all of my landlord’s keys, the window was his means of entry.  The woman screaming was angry at him, but just angry, not surprised.  My landlord assured me of the norm of this situation.  Apparently many families and social systems in my Minneapolis neighborhood had similar arrangements, designed to prevent homelessness.

According to a recent study published by Angela Fertig and David Reingold the risk of family homelessness is more strongly related to individual than structural factors.  In a longitudinal study that took place over three years and examined both structural and individual factors, homeless families are more likely to be headed by African American single mothers who have been dealt with health or safety issues (like chemical dependency or domestic violence).  These families are unlikely to have lived in any particular neighborhood for five years or more, which would suggest a low rate of community supports.  Anti-homelessness laws, like those against vagrancy or sleeping in public spaces, were not found to be statistically related with lowering the rate of homelessness.  In the study, homelessness was defined as either being homeless at the time of the interview, or having have spent even just one night somewhere that is not meant for sleeping (a car, tent, outdoors, ect) out of necessity.

Homeless families are most likely to be led by African American single mothers

Homeless families are most likely to be led by African American single mothers. (Photo from Shake it For Shelters.)

The major alternative to homelessness the study examined was “doubling up,” or moving in with a relative or friend rent-free.  The families more likely to double up were found to be Hispanic or another race, younger, high school graduates, and have family who would likely loan them a small amount of money (<$200).  All of them families examined in the study had a child under three years of age.  One  explanation offered in the study is that when mothers give birth to a new child, they may reconsider staying in an abusive relationship.  Alternately, the birth of a new child increases economic stress on any family.  For families who are already living on the edge, a new child may push them over.

The study suggests some ways cities and institutions can help prevent family homelessness.  Targeting their outreach efforts toward female high school dropouts who are new to the area would seem to lower the risk for homelessness. Additionally, increasing welfare and Section 8 programs was not found to increase the rate of homelessness; instead it was found to help mitigate some concerning risk factors.  Length of time spent in a particular community was also found to be negatively correlated with homelessness.

Fertig, A.R. and Reingold, D.A. (2008).  Homelessness among At-Risk Families with Children in Twenty American Cities.  Social Service Review, 82(3), 485-510.