Executive Summary: Family Violence and Homelessness: A Review of the Literature

Executive Summary

This literature review summarizes current knowledge about the relationship between family violence and homelessness. It begins by considering the categories of homelessness that have been identified in the literature, pointing out the difficulties that definitional problems pose to any attempt to gain an accurate estimate of the extent of homelessness in Canada.

While most efforts to estimate numbers have been relegated to those people who use homeless shelters, it is recognized that this population constitutes only a portion of the total. Although many women who flee abusive spouses make use of family violence shelters, most do not. They stay with friends or relatives, moving from one short-term arrangement to another, and often eventually returning to the abusive home environment. Victims of family violence constitute a significant portion of the hidden or relatively homeless.

Research has documented the changing demographic profile of the homeless population, finding that it is increasingly composed of women, families, youth and children – often referred to as the "new" homeless. As well, Aboriginal women experience a higher rate of both family violence and homelessness than non-Aboriginal women. They are over-represented among the homeless, according to studies conducted in several Canadian cities.

Explanations for the emergence of these new categories of the homeless have acknowledged high rates of family violence in their backgrounds, and research studies have begun to probe the possible contributing role of family breakdown, trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

Many studies in Canada and elsewhere have found that rates of family violence are not only more prevalent in the histories of homeless people than among the non-homeless, but also that they are exceptionally high. More specifically, studies have found high rates of abuse in the childhoods of homeless people – most notably women and female youth. This association has been found to be consistently strong enough that some researchers have concluded that family violence is a major cause of homelessness. Moreover, it is increasingly identified by shelter users themselves as the reason for their homelessness.

As well, there is evidence that patterns of homelessness are related to the nature, severity and duration of the abuse which individuals suffered as children. Chronically or repeatedly homeless women, for example, have histories of much higher rates of physical and sexual abuse than other segments of the population. Similarly, use of shelters is strongly correlated with the severity and frequency of the abuse experienced in the home.

Given the psycho-social effects that family violence has on victims, the services offered by the staff of family violence shelters is of crucial importance if victims are to recover and avoid abusive relationships in the future. However, it is also recognized that the provision of permanent affordable housing is a prerequisite to the recovery process.

Research findings also point to a relationship between housing conditions and family violence that can flow in the other direction – poor housing conditions contributing to interpersonal stress, conflict and violence. It is therefore not surprising that women living in urban public housing experience a greater rate of violence from intimates than do other women. However, it is also felt that subsidized housing and short-term emergency shelter are required to curb female victimization by male partners and to promote women's safety, autonomy and self-reliance.

The lack of affordable housing has been identified as a barrier that prevents abused women and their children from "moving on" after short-term stays in a family violence shelter. Trends recorded in one major Canadian city seem to indicate that women are having increasing difficulty to obtain subsidized housing on leaving a shelter. Statistics Canada data indicate that approximately one-third of victims who flee violent homes remain homeless or unstably housed for prolonged periods.

Among youth, the consequences of family violence are reflected in their later experiences among the homeless population. Homeless youth who have fled abusive home environments tend to be more vulnerable to victimization while living on the street than are other homeless youth. This association is especially pronounced for female youth, and especially so for young women who were victims of sexual abuse in their families.

With increasing emotional separation from parents, adolescents become more reliant on peers who provide information and support and help socialize them regarding street survival skills. Deviant social networks and high-risk behaviours increase the likelihood of serious re-victimization, leading to assaults and exploitation. Re-victimization and coercive relationships reinforce what these youth learned in their families. This process is very hard to reverse. The service response to this population must be multi-sectoral, innovative and especially sensitive.

This review of the literature points to issues requiring further research. We need to develop a greater understanding of the links between childhood abuse and later chronic or repetitive homelessness. Similarly, the associations between child welfare placements and later patterns of repetitive homelessness warrant close examination. The over-representation of Aboriginal women among the homeless is especially worthy of further research. Similarly, there is need to ensure that research examines the particular circumstances of members of specific populations, including members of ethnocultural communities, persons with disabilities and people living in remote and rural areas.

There is also need for more information on the variety of shelter and longer-term housing needs of abused women and the degree to which further collaboration among different types of shelters should be fostered. Finally, there is clear need for research on the utilization rates and effectiveness of Canadian legal remedies to remove perpetrators of family violence from the family home.

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