Intergenerational Homelessness: A Tragic Legacy

Children from homeless families are more likely to experience intergenerational homelessness

Children of Homeless Families Often Find Themselves Stuck in Poverty

Of all the ideas people tend to have about how an unhoused person became unhoused, it rarely occurs to people that they may have just been born into homelessness. Even though we’re seeing record-breaking numbers of homeless children and families, we don’t think about intergenerational homelessness, and the fact that these children will likely grow up to become homeless adults.

If we think about it at all, we may imagine these children “rising above” their humble beginnings. Perhaps they will meet just the right person to help them change their lives entirely or have some magical upward mobility to pull them out of homelessness at some point.

This isn’t the reality for most people who experienced poverty and homelessness as kids. In fact, people with this background have to overcome so many circumstantial and physiological barriers that it’s a miracle any of them can achieve a stable level of housing at all.

The deck is stacked against them from day one.

Research on Intergenerational Homelessness is Lagging

Surprisingly for such a common phenomenon, little research has been done to understand intergenerational homelessness better. We’re starting to see from the limited research available that roughly half of all homeless adults today also experienced homelessness while they were growing up. That’s an undeniable connection.

We also know that experiencing homelessness as a child, even if it’s a short-duration, one-time occurrence, can increase a person’s risk of homelessness in adulthood by 40 percent

Causes Contributing to Continued Homelessness

There are likely many factors contributing to intergenerational homelessness. To understand it more fully, we need to compile data from many more people’s personal experiences with this and look at the common themes. In the meantime, here are a few educated guesses:

Lack of Financial Support from Family

Many of us have been helped out of a tight spot with some timely assistance from our parents or other family members. Whether it’s cash in the bank or a place to stay rent-free, that help can often be the difference between remaining housed and becoming unhoused.

However, if the rest of your family is also unhoused, resources like this are usually minimal. Family members may offer to help you out however they can, but even pooling your resources together, you still may not have enough to avoid a financial catastrophe. And there’s no couch available to crash on until you get back on your feet. 

Second-generation homelessness comes with a virtual guarantee that you won’t be able to access the parental financial support that others have come to rely on. It cuts you off from yet another safety net, turning what others might experience as a minor inconvenience into a major emergency.

The Physiological Effects of Childhood Poverty

Studies on the effects of experiencing poverty during childhood have shown links to adult morbidity and mortality, chronic physiological stress, and memory deficits, among other things.

Experiencing childhood poverty affects your physical and mental health for decades after the fact. These effects can make it challenging to change your circumstances and may lead to illnesses that require expensive medical treatment, making it even harder to escape poverty.

Naming Children in Eviction Paperwork

An eviction on your record makes it much harder to convince a landlord to rent to you in the future, regardless of the circumstances surrounding that eviction. This effect is magnified for Black people and other people of color who already face significant bias from landlords even without a prior eviction.

This unfortunate fact intersects with intergenerational homelessness because some landlords have been including children’s names as defendants in eviction cases. When these children grow up and try to rent housing, they may discover for the first time that they were named and blamed for things that happened to their family while they were babies.

Lack of Affordable Housing

Of course, the above factors have just been theories about the specific experience of intergenerational homelessness. More broadly, we know that the overall lack of affordable housing is the root cause of all homelessness. If housing were affordable and abundant, the effects of all these other contributing factors would matter little to none. 

Family Separation Is Not a Solution

Reading about all these challenges facing children from homeless families, you may wonder if it wouldn’t be best if the children were taken out of that situation. Of course it would, but not if that means family separation, which can add a host of new issues onto the first pile that didn’t just disappear. 

It doesn’t erase the 40% increased risk factor for adult homelessness that children incur from experiencing homelessness once in childhood. It doesn’t undo the physiological effects that poverty has already had on the child. Except in rare circumstances, it doesn’t give the child access to familial financial support as needed throughout their life.

Taking children away from their unhoused family members and placing them into a foster home may give them a roof above their heads. Still, it also saddles them with the inherent trauma of familial separation. It’s not a good solution for a loving family who lacks the proper resources to care for their children.

If the only problem is poverty, why not take the money we would spend placing the child in a foster home and instead pay that directly to the family? That would improve the child’s living conditions without incurring the trauma of being taken away from their family.

So What Can We Do?

All of our recommendations for ending homelessness also apply to ending intergenerational homelessness. But if you want to target this problem specifically, talk to your legislators about ways you can provide families in poverty with the financial support they need directly. This could be through modifications to the current foster care system, safety net programs, or the creation of entirely new programs.

Push for more affordable housing suitable for families. Donate money directly to unhoused families in your local area. Educate others about unhoused children and the effects of intergenerational homelessness.

Kayla Robbins

Kayla Robbins


Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. When she's not working, she enjoys knitting socks, rolling d20s, and binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off.

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