Intergenerational Homelessness and Housing Insecurity

If one experience described my childhood and shaped me most today, it would be living in poverty. Like so many who experience poverty, I came from a family that, for generations, had experienced housing insecurity and a lack of resources and opportunities. I remember my mother’s anxiety about whether she could pay our rent. To stay afloat, we had a constant flow of roommates and family members who stayed with us and shared the rent. As I got older, I was shocked but not surprised to learn that my own living conditions were similar to that of my elders’ childhoods. My grandparents told stories of living in overcrowded one-room shacks in the fields of Fresno and run-down farmhouses near the vineyards of Napa. They coped by laughing about needing to share bedrooms with various siblings and cousins until they were 18—when they moved into their own place. These experiences influenced my decision to work at UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative.

As a homelessness researcher, I recognize intergenerational patterns in everything we study. Intergenerational homelessness is when two generations of a family experience homelessness: either together (i.e., family homelessness) or separately. Family homelessness is defined as families with minor children experiencing homelessness together. On a single night in January 2020 (the most recent national data available), an estimated 171,575 people in families with children under age 18—or 55,739 family households—were experiencing homelessness in the United States. No one records the number of adult-only intergenerational familial households—young or middle-aged adults experiencing homelessness alongside their parents—but we know it is common. There is little data on how many sequential generations in families experience homelessness. Roughly half of homeless participants in one Australian study reported that their parents experienced homelessness. Since Black and Indigenous people are three to four times more likely to experience homelessness than their white counterparts, they make up a disproportionate number of these families. How did we get here?

When local rents are unaffordable and there is no government safety net, people become homeless. In the United States, only 36 units of housing are affordable and available for every 100 extremely low-income households. These households are at the greatest risk of homelessness. In California, there are only 23. Currently, no state has enough available, affordable rental homes for extremely low-income renters. People of color are more likely to be extremely low-income, thus they are at higher risk of experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, prior episodes of homelessness are risk factors for future episodes of homelessness. One study found that roughly half of homeless adult participants experienced homelessness before the age of 18. People who experienced homelessness as a child have 40% higher odds of becoming homeless as an adult, even if the childhood episode was a short, one time experience (which is how most people experience homelessness).

To understand how this replicates generation after generation, we must look at factors underlying modern day homelessness, which can be traced to the 1970s and 1980s. Intergenerational homelessness is related to structural racism. Until a few decades ago, institutional discrimination limited people of color’s ability to buy homes and create intergenerational wealth and housing stability. Racial covenants maintained segregated neighborhoods by denying anyone of color from buying homes in certain neighborhoods. Then, the government commonly practiced redlining, a discriminatory housing practice where mortgages were withheld from people who resided in majority–minority low-income neighborhoods (the ones racial covenants created) because they were considered a bad investment. The government and banking institutions purposely kept people of color out of the housing market during a time of incredible wealth making for white households. Perpetuating inequity, non-white segregated schools received less funding from local property taxes for educational opportunities and had less qualified teachers. Such inequities hindered people of color’s career advancement and, therefore, their ability to attain jobs that pay more than minimum wage and to afford to own a home. Entire communities of color were historically excluded from funding and opportunities, and, in worst cases, were destroyed. While these practices are now illegal, modern day discriminatory practices still stop people of color from entering and staying in the housing market and experiencing long-term housing security. These practices limit the ability of people, particularly those of color, with a low income to have the American dream of upward mobility and will continue to affect families for generations.

Studying the long-term effects of housing insecurity is important because homelessness and housing insecurity are detrimental to people’s health. The relationship of housing insecurity, poverty, and poor health exacerbates the cycle of homelessness. UCSF researchers found that many older homeless adults cited the poor health or death of another household member as a reason for losing housing. Many people experiencing homelessness lost breadwinners in childhood or young adulthood to poor health and early morbidity. In a country where a census tract can predict your life expectancy, the poor health of people in the same household over one lifetime reduces the younger generation’s income, wealth, and accompanying social support—all of which are protective factors against homelessness. Across generations, this barrier to financial security compounds. In my own life, no immediate family member whom I grew up with lived past 62 years old. For me, this meant that I had no place to stay during holidays in college, and I had to depend on the generosity of friends and godparents. For others, this contributes to their episodes of homelessness.

To address intergenerational homelessness and housing insecurity, we must protect low-income families and mitigate the risk of their children experiencing homelessness. Only 1 in 4 people who are eligible for housing assistance receive it. We need to invest in families by expanding the Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) program and decreasing its bureaucratic barriers. We must preserve, protect, and expand the stock of affordable housing in the United States to ensure that extremely low-income families are not rent-burdened or living in crowded housing because that is the only way to afford the rent. We must create economic opportunities by investing in low-income communities. We must advocate for more funds for government safety net programs (i.e., SNAP [food stamps], disability benefits) and make healthcare affordable and accessible. To build a better future, it is imperative to invest in communities of color and work to repair the harm caused by past discriminatory policies. Together we can create a world where housing is a human right.