In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Child Homelessness

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Frameworks / Operational Definitions
  • Overview and Reviews
  • Street Children
  • Homeless Children with Disabilities
  • Children’s Experiences / Children’s Voices
  • Homelessness and Children’s Rights
  • Education and Homelessness

Childhood Studies Child Homelessness
Valerie Polakow, Katja Robinson, Chloe Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0164


Child homelessness is integrally linked to poverty, the political economy of resource distribution, and the impacts of globalization on children and families in the Global South and Global North. While homelessness is frequently documented as part of broader global trends where access to shelter is influenced by crises such as wars, ethnic cleansing, famine, and forced migrations and displacements, structural adjustment policies that promote privatization, deregulation, and trade liberalization have played a significant role in exacerbating poverty and loss, with damaging effects on poor families worldwide. Because children are dependent on their families for shelter and survival, accounts of child homelessness invariably focus on poverty and family viability, but child homelessness and the meanings that children themselves attribute to their experiences have not often been addressed. A children’s-rights framework for understanding child poverty, exclusion, and homelessness continues to shape the postmodern construction of child homelessness, and a multidimensional view of poverty (both material and non-material) that takes participants’ own agency and perspectives into account must also be extended to children as agents of their own lives as they encounter dispossession both of home and social worlds (see also the Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies article “Child Poverty, Rights, and Well-Being” by Valerie Polakow and Syprose Owiti).

Homelessness in the Global North and Global South results in dramatically different life trajectories and experiences. In the Global South, homelessness has been framed predominantly in relation to survival needs such as hunger, clean water, health and sanitation, and infant and child mortality. In the Global North, there are contested discourses that frame poverty and homelessness in terms of individual deficits and behavioral pathology, particularly among those who advocate for a dewelfared state in the United States. Among wealthy industrialized nations, the United States stands as an outlier, with excessively high rates of child poverty and child homelessness, where families with children now constitute 37 percent of the homeless population. A framework that is rights based and emphasizes the role of the state in combating social exclusion has gained greater prominence, particularly in the European Union. Both material and non-material poverty have far-reaching effects on children. Homelessness is frequently the end of the poverty continuum where the distinctions between those who are housed and those who are unhoused create both material and social stratifications, which play out in terms of residential and school instability, social displacement, and psychological trauma—eroding children’s development and severely truncating their human capabilities and future trajectories.

General Overviews

Understanding child homelessness as embedded in broader state and global policies about homelessness and poverty raises questions about the meaning of democracy, citizenship, and rights. The globalization of capital and the impact of neoliberal policies with the ensuing privatization of public space and public services have severe consequences for the destitute and near-destitute, from urban pushouts to the criminalization of the unhoused, and xenophobia against those who are undocumented and stateless. The dominant discourses about homelessness frequently embody a language of exclusion and invisibility where the unhoused become other and undergo a form of “social death,” which Bauman 2004 incisively analyzes. Zygmunt Bauman points to the process of estrangement from the social body resulting in discourses of human waste, “dangerousness,” and derangement coupled with terminology of redundancy and collateral casualties. Those who live on the liminal edges confront the contradictory forces of a fortress state, where nonproducers are unwanted. Arnold 2004 deconstructs the politics and the meaning of homelessness in the modern nation-state and the loss of rights when citizenship is threatened and identity is erased. Kathleen Arnold critiques neoliberal policies that construct homeless people as other and proposes a radical rethinking of the meaning of home, citizenship, and political identity. Edgar, et al. 2002, focusing on Europe, argues that the right to housing is embedded in international rights conventions and that this right is juxtaposed against market forces producing deregulation and the commodification of housing. The ensuing vulnerability leads to social exclusion. Different welfare state regimes are analyzed within the framework of a European social agenda dedicated to promoting social cohesion and combating poverty. In the United States, Wagner and Gilman 2012 presents an overview of the debate among scholars and activists of homelessness about how homelessness is constructed. The criminalization of homelessness by many city ordinances, hate crime legislation, and identity politics all are comprehensively discussed as part of the US failure to adequately address homelessness. A feminist overview of homelessness in the 1980s in Watson and Austerberry 1986 frames the historical context of homelessness, focusing on domestic, housing, and labor market conditions as well as the perspectives of homeless women with children in the United Kingdom. While there are few studies that exclusively focus on global child homelessness, Mapp 2011 explores children’s development and survival in the Global North and South in relation to major threats constituted by poverty, child trafficking, child soldiers, and forced displacements leading to endemic homelessness.

  • Arnold, Kathleen R. Homelessness, Citizenship, and Identity: The Uncanniness of Late Modernity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

    Homelessness and statelessness are seen as markers of democracy or lack thereof. Critiques the othering of homeless people and analyzes the meaning of citizenship as a political identity affected by neoliberalism. Argues for a radical rethinking of the meaning of home, leading to a citizenship that confers political equality.

  • Bauman, Zygmunt. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2004.

    The discourses of redundancy with attendant collateral casualties lay bare the production of “human waste,” where those who are other reside outside the functional normalized state. Superfluous people are banished from the human community in this scathing analysis of lives that are eviscerated by modernity and globalization’s impacts.

  • Edgar, Bill, Joe Doherty, and Henk Meert. Access to Housing: Homelessness and Vulnerability in Europe. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2002.

    As coordinators of the European Observatory on Homelessness, the authors present a comprehensive overview of homeless conditions, causes, and policies in the European Union (EU), focusing on the market, the state, and civil society from a rights-based framework.

  • Mapp, Susan C. Global Child Welfare and Well-Being. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Framing child welfare and well-being in the context of children’s rights as outlined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), major threats to children’s development and survival are explored from a global perspective. Conclusion points to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the work that is required to achieve minimal human rights for children, particularly for girls.

  • Wagner, David, and Jennifer B. Gilman. Confronting Homelessness: Poverty, Politics and the Failure of Social Policy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2012.

    Author of Checkerboard Square: Culture and Resistance in a Homeless Community published in the 1990s, activist Wagner has coauthored a timely and useful overview of homelessness in the United States that includes a brief historical overview of policies and practices and the changing discourses of homelessness.

  • Watson, Sophie, and Helen Austerberry. Housing and Homelessness: A Feminist Perspective. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

    A useful historical summary documenting homelessness in the United Kingdom from industrialization to the 1980s is followed by an analysis of marginalization. Part 2 also includes the voices of homeless women, with a focus on the family and the distinctive hurdles (including custody) experienced by unhoused women with children.

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