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One organization offers New York City's homeless families more than just shelter and explores their attitudes toward family values.
Today one in every four children in the United States is born to a single mother. One-third - or 400,000 - of these mothers are teenagers.(1) These staggering numbers have been the driving force behind a growing clamor to restore family values.(2) Ever since then Vice President Dan Quayle focused popular attention on this issue, illegitimacy has been blamed for the dramatic increases in substance abuse, school dropout rates, and crime. The reality of American family life today, however, is far more complex than the simplistic picture painted by rhetoric and anecdote. Our nation's poorest families are at risk and will remain so unless we make a serious attempt to understand and address the crisis of stability that faces them.
Since 1986, Homes for the Homeless, a private nonprofit organization in New York City, has operated four family-focused, residential, education-based facilities - the American Family Inns - serving over 8,400 families and 18,300 children. Located in four of New York City's five boroughs - Queens, Staten Island, Manhattan and the Bronx - these centers, which currently serve over 540 families daily, have had enormous success not only in ending the cycle of homelessness but breaking the cycle of dependency as well. Two years after leaving these facilities, 94 percent of families are still living independently.
To place the family-focused approach of the American Family Inns in context, however, one must first understand how New York City's homeless families view traditional "family values." In July 1994, Homes for the Homeless and its research division, the Institute for Children and Poverty, conducted a study of family structure and values among the city's homeless families. Using a detailed, 70-question survey, we interviewed the heads of homeless families whom we serve through the American Family Inns; 498 families participated in the study, representing roughly 8 percent of all homeless families in the city shelter system.(3)
Our study found that not only has the traditional family structure broken down, but with this erosion have come stark contradictions between the reality of homeless women's lives and the values they hold. In fact, preliminary findings suggest that the traditional family may be obsolete for this population. Of all the findings, however, one trend is paramount: Education is a strong predictor of the stability of family structure and of a family's ability to rise out of poverty and become independent.
In essence, the results of this study demonstrate that, for America's poorest, the family has become a loosely knit, transitory group. And unless education is emphasized, children may grow to adulthood without the critical skills, values, and self-esteem typically instilled in a traditional family structure.
The challenge that emerges, then, is not simply to attempt to instill "values" by placing children in orphanages or through sanctioning single mothers financially, but rather to develop viable policies that enable families to remain intact and become self-sufficient.
The Obsolete Family?
Our research with families indicates that the typical homeless family in New York City today consists of an unmarried 20-year-old mother with one or two children under the age of 6, likely fathered by different men. In all likelihood, she never completed high school, never worked to support her family, and had at least one abortion by age 16. There is a one-in-five chance that she was in foster care as a child; if so, she is more than twice as likely as other homeless mothers to have an open case of child abuse or neglect with a child welfare agency.(4)
Although some will argue that this snapshot reflects a deterioration in family values, what it also depicts is a fundamental change in the makeup of America's poorest families. Homeless mothers may believe in the ideal of the traditional family - children living with their married parents - but for most, that image has little connection to their current reality. For these mothers, marriage has all but disappeared and single-parent households have become the norm. Today, 87 percent of these mothers have never been and perhaps never will be married; and …