In the early 1990s

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					                                ‘A home…for my children’:
        Findings from a longitudinal study of families who have
                      experienced homelessness.



                                   Paper presented at
                Ninth Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference
                                 9 – 11 February 2005
                                       Melbourne




                                             Violet Kolar
                                       Hanover Welfare Services
                                        vkolar@hanover.org.au


    (This paper is adapted from the final study report: Home First: A longitudinal study of
  outcomes for families who have experienced homelessness, Final Report, Hanover Welfare
                                        Services, 2004)




_____________________________________________________________                                   I
‘A home…for my children’: Findings from a longitudinal study of families who have experienced
homelessness. – Violet Kolar, Feb 2005
In the early 1990s, Hanover Welfare Services and the Australian Institute of Family Studies
(AIFS) embarked on a collaborative partnership to explore the rise in the numbers of families
experiencing homelessness and housing crisis. This led to one of the first pieces of research
into family homelessness. The report was published in 1992 (McCaughey 1992); in the
foreword to the report, the founding director of AIFS, Don Edgar, described family
homelessness as ‘a growing social scandal’.

In 1996, Hanover Welfare Services teamed up with the Royal Children’s Hospital in
Melbourne on a study that focused on the impact that homelessness had on children (Efron et
al 1996). The findings highlighted detrimental outcomes that affected children’s physical,
emotional, social and educational development. To enable positive outcomes for children,
access to safe, secure and stable housing is essential.

Over the last ten years, Australia has experienced a sustained period of economic growth. The
benefits, however, have not flowed on to all households, while the ‘growing social scandal’ of
family homelessness continues unabated. In 2003, nearly 54,000 Australian children, together
with their parents, were assisted by homeless services (AIHW 2003).

Based on the two earlier studies (McCaughey 1992; Efron et al 1996), Hanover Welfare
Services launched the Family Longitudinal Outcomes Study (FLOS) in 2000. FLOS was
designed as a longitudinal study to follow a sample of 42 families who had experienced
housing crisis, over a two-year period.

The purpose of the study was to gain an understanding of the pathways out of homelessness,
and to identify the key issues associated with establishing and maintaining housing and family
stability. It explored the fundamental themes of housing, income, employment and education,
use of welfare services, support networks, child development and family wellbeing. This
paper is based on the findings from this unique longitudinal study.

The specific research questions that underpinned FLOS were:
       To what extent does a family’s housing stabilise in the longer term after a period of
        homelessness and crisis assistance?
       What issues contribute to decisions about housing moves and location of housing?
       What is the association between housing moves and job opportunities?
       What are the barriers to accessing and retaining stable housing?
       How important is the development of support networks on stable housing?
       What is the correlation between long-term housing outcomes and program exit
        outcomes?
       How is children’s development and family wellbeing affected in the long-term after a
        housing crisis?

Profile of participating families:
Over the two-year period families took part in five waves of interviews. The study began with
a total of 42 families; but there was a steady loss of families at each data collection period.
When the study was completed, the final sample size was 30 families. The overall loss of 12
families represents a non-response rate of 29 per cent. Despite this, 71 per cent of families
_____________________________________________________________                           II
‘A home…for my children’: Findings from a longitudinal study of families who have experienced
homelessness. – Violet Kolar, Feb 2005
remained involved with the study over the two-year timeframe, which represents a favourable
response rate.

Typically, the study participants were mothers who were born in Australia, had left school
early (Year 10), and were aged between 19 to 50 years with an average age of 30 years.
Participants had an average of 2.3 children. Only one child in each family was selected as the
‘focus child’ for the study, usually by the parent. For this sub-group of children, most were
aged less than 12 years and were in the early years of primary school.

Key Findings
Family concerns
A complex range of reasons had precipitated families’ housing crisis. These included
relationship and family breakdown, domestic violence, physical/emotional abuse, financial
difficulties, unemployment, eviction and substance abuse. After their housing had stabilised,
families continued to be concerned about these difficulties. In some cases, families
experienced an increase in such difficulties.

One of the main difficulties for families was financial hardship. Employment and health
issues had become more widespread as housing stabilised. Relationship difficulties and
physical/emotional abuse, initially widespread had fallen, but persisted throughout the two-
year period of the study. Expressed concern about domestic violence had also fallen over the
study’s two-year timeframe.

The range of concerns was usually interlinked. Those participants who had reported
employment concerns, for example, had also reported relationship and financial problems. Put
another, families were generally confronted with multiple difficulties. It was only when
housing had stabilised were families in a position to confront and resolve their other
difficulties. Indeed, by the second year of the study, some families had resolved those
difficulties and, as a consequence, experienced significant improvements in their lives. In
general, the majority of families had experienced positive outcomes. However, for a few
families the study period had been marred by unresolved difficulty and hardship.

Housing Circumstances
Of the original 42 families, 80 per cent had exited homeless support services and moved into
independent housing, either private rental or public housing. The loss of 12 families over the
two-year study was due to this group moving house and a loss of contact, rather than the
families refusing to participate further in the study. It is likely that the moves were prompted
by a further crisis, not by choice. It may well be that housing for this group of families was
unstable, which then forced them to move.

In contrast, for those families who had remained with the study, the majority (83 per cent) had
experienced stable housing. That is, families had not moved house or, as was the case in a few
instances, they had made a positive change such as, for example, moving into cheaper
housing. The majority of families also personally perceived their housing as stable. In those
instances where housing was perceived as unstable, it was due to the temporary nature of the
accommodation. This included transitional housing or, staying with family or friends. Despite
the ongoing difficulties that some endured, no family was accommodated in a SAAP crisis
service in the last 18 months of the study.

_____________________________________________________________                                   III
‘A home…for my children’: Findings from a longitudinal study of families who have experienced
homelessness. – Violet Kolar, Feb 2005
Most families lived in private rental or public housing; but the proportion of families who
were in private rental was consistently higher than for those in public housing. It was no
surprise that the cost of housing was more expensive for families renting privately than for
those in public housing. In fact, for the two-year term of the study, families generally paid
twice as much for private rental than for public housing. ($160.00 compared with $76.00 per
week, respectively).

While private rental remained relatively expensive, housing affordability had, in fact,
improved. Housing affordability was based on weekly rent paid as a proportion of total net
weekly household income, with the benchmark usually set at 30 per cent. Thus, families
whose housing costs more than 30 per cent of their income are said to be in housing stress.
Over the course of the study, the proportion of families in affordable private housing had
more than doubled, from 25 to 55 per cent. That is, when the study began a quarter of the
families in private rental had paid less than 30 per cent of their net income on rent. By the end
of the study, more than half had spent less than 30 per cent of their income on rent. Gaining
employment or moving into cheaper housing had generally contributed to improved housing
affordability.

It should be noted, however, that even though 55 per cent of families in private rental had
affordable housing, the remaining 45 per cent were in housing stress. Put another way, they
paid in excess of 30 per cent of their on rent. This occurred despite the fact that they received
Rent Assistance. Thus, for a number of families, Rent Assistance proved to be ineffective
because it had not enabled them access to affordable housing.

Income and Employment
The predominant source of family income came from income support payments, primarily in
the form of the Parenting Payment and the Family Tax Benefit. Families in private rental also
received Rent Assistance. In general, paid work, either full-time or part-time, was not a
common source of income. Most parents were not in the labour force primarily because of
parenting responsibilities. The median weekly income for families was $440.00.

The proportion of those in paid work had been relatively low over the two-year period.
Nevertheless, it had doubled from 11 to 23 per cent, mostly amongst two-parent families. The
work, however, was mainly part-time, poorly paid and required minimal skills. The weekly
hours worked ranged from just eight hours up to 38 hours per week. Employment was a
growing area of concern for families. Certainly, in terms of their short-term future, most
expressed a desire to be in some form of employment. Paid work held significance not only
for the parents seeking it but also for other family members, as illustrated in the following
comment:
            [My seven-year-old son] is so much happier since his dad got a job.
            He’s making plans [and saying] “I can do this and I can have
            that”…(two-parent family with three children living in public
            housing).

Use of welfare services
A critical finding in the study was that there had been an increase in the use of welfare
services. It was anticipated that the use of welfare support would fall as housing stabilised.
However, the findings showed that the proportion of families who had accessed welfare
support had remained relatively high over the two-year period.
_____________________________________________________________                                   IV
‘A home…for my children’: Findings from a longitudinal study of families who have experienced
homelessness. – Violet Kolar, Feb 2005
Why had this occurred? There are two issues that are important to note with the use of support
services. The first is that securing housing was the over-riding priority for families. Only
when housing had stabilised were families in a relatively better position to deal with the other
difficulties in their lives. The second is that given that some families were confronted with
multiple and complex problems, it is reasonable to expect that support services would be
required over a longer period of time. Far from being a negative result, these findings
highlight the families’ resilience and strength, often in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Families had actively sought the support they needed in an effort to restore some ‘normality’
in their lives and to resolve their difficulties.

The types of services that families had received comprised, in general, non-housing support.
These included counselling for emotional, family or relationship issues, financial or material
aid, including food in the form of vouchers and hampers. At the end of the two-year study, 70
per cent of families had accessed non-housing support. For the vast majority in this group (91
per cent), the demand was primarily for food assistance. This indicates that while an increased
proportion of families could afford a roof over their heads, they still struggled to meet the
daily cost of basic necessities.

Children’s wellbeing
A key finding was that stable housing had translated into positive outcomes for children.
These were reflected in the children’s general behaviour, family relationships and health. By
the end of the study, the vast majority of parents (92 per cent) reported that their child’s
general health was good. However, a few parents (n=5) also identified a range of specific
health issues that had affected their child’s activity in some way. They included physical,
intellectual and/or emotional difficulties.

The majority of children attended school and were in the early years of primary school. For
this group, stable housing had a marked impact on school outcomes. As housing stabilised,
school attendance improved. For example, the average number of days absent from school
halved from almost twelve days to just six days over the two-year study period. Further,
absence from school due to illness had averaged seven days when the study began. By the end
of the study, this too had halved.

Teachers, understandably, were an important influence when it came to children’s school
performance. The study findings indicated that where a child’s school performance had
improved, it was usually linked to a change in teachers. Sometimes, that also meant a change
in schools. For example, one parent talked about her child’s difficulty concentrating at school
when in grade one, which the parent attributed to their housing crisis. When this child entered
grade two and got a new teacher, the child’s performance improved. The parent described the
new teacher as patient, empathetic and with an understanding of children’s behavioural
difficulties. The data, in the main, indicated positive educational experiences for the sub-
sample of children

Policy Recommendations
Past research has shown that homelessness has a serious negative impact on children’s
wellbeing, development, education and health. The findings from the FLOS study
demonstrated that children experienced positive changes in these areas once their
homelessness had been addressed. Put another way, housing is crucial to the development and

_____________________________________________________________                                   V
‘A home…for my children’: Findings from a longitudinal study of families who have experienced
homelessness. – Violet Kolar, Feb 2005
wellbeing of children. A child simply cannot be expected to thrive if that child is homeless. It
also needs to be acknowledged that a child’s wellbeing is inextricably intertwined with the
wellbeing of their parents.

To reflect the urgency of children and their families who are homeless, and the extent of
community concern about it, the priorities of the Australian Government should include:
       A national housing strategy that, after a period of transition, will adjust housing
        assistance and the tax treatment of housing in a way that will ensure that it is better
        targeted to those most in need.
       The establishment of a target to reduce by 20 per cent the homelessness experienced
        by families, as has occurred in Scotland.
       The establishment of strategies to more adequately integrate employment and housing
        assistance in a way that will ensure that each child has a parent able to gain paid work.
       The implementation of Hanover’s Rebound strategy of targeted assistance designed to
        help children of homeless families, as a national program. Rebound involves small
        expenditures to help children catch up with their learning, promote their personal
        wellbeing and participation in social events and sport.
       The Australian Government’s pilot of the Family Homelessness Prevention Program,
        which has proved to be remarkably successful, should be widely expanded.

Conclusion
Homelessness encompasses a complex mix of structural and personal difficulties. The
elimination of homelessness, therefore, requires a comprehensive and multi-layered approach.
Thus, it is essential to ensure the availability of good quality and affordable housing. Further,
employment and training opportunities are crucial so that families can escape poverty.
Without addressing these policy areas, homelessness will continue, and family wellbeing and
stability, particularly in the longer-term, will be compromised.

References
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) (2003), Homeless people in SAAP: SAAP
National Data Collection Annual Report 2002-2003 Australia, AIHW Cat. No. HOU 91,
AIHW, Canberra (SAAP NDCA Report Series 8).

Efron, D. Sewell, J. Horn, M. and Jewell, F. (1996), Can we stay here? A study of the impact
of family homelessness on children’s health and well being, Hanover Welfare Services,
Melbourne.

McCaughey, J. (1992), Where Now? Homeless Families in the 1990s, Policy Background
Paper No.8, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.




_____________________________________________________________                                   VI
‘A home…for my children’: Findings from a longitudinal study of families who have experienced
homelessness. – Violet Kolar, Feb 2005

				
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