The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

"They Can Only Do So Much”: Reliance On Family While Coping With Rural Homelessness

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 10:45 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, Alamo Ballroom Salon B, 2nd Floor Elevator Level BR (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Deanna Trella, PhD, Assistant Professor, Northern Michigan University, Marquette, MI
Timothy Hilton, PhD, Associate Professor, Northern Michigan University, Marquette, MI


Purpose:  This research explores individuals’ and families’ reliance on non-homeless family members in coping with homelessness in rural areas.  We use a socio-rational choice framework—which focuses on how social contexts and individual factors shape decisions—to explain homeless persons’ use of family in meeting their basic needs.  We establish two conceptual categories of homeless, high and low threshold help-seekers, who differ by the frequency and amount of help sought from non-homeless family.   

Methods:  Data include audio recordings of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with homeless adults and families (n=110).  Wave one interviews with single adults (n=54) were conducted in 2009 and 2010.  Wave two interviews with parents (n=56) were conducted in 2011 and 2012.  Data were collected in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a region characterized by small communities, low population density, limited employment opportunities, minimal social services, scarce public transportation, and a harsh climate.  Participants were recruited through social service agencies, flyers and snowball sampling.  Directly coding audio recordings using NVivo software, we employed a grounded theory approach to reveal patterns with respect to help sought from and received by non-homeless family members. 

Results: All participants in the sample maintained contact with non-homeless family.  Single homeless adults were more likely than adults with children to be categorized as “high threshold” family-help seekers.  They tended to have extensive social networks which allowed them to limit help sought from family, thus preserving these vital relationships.  Homeless families were more likely to be categorized as “low threshold” family-help seekers.   They tended to have less extensive help networks forcing them to rely heavily on family members.  Single homeless generally sought help infrequently and in modest amounts, whereas families typically required more substantial help for extended periods.  Focusing on homeless persons’ coping behaviors reveals there are substantial costs to requesting and receiving help from family members.  Understanding decisions about whether to seek help from family requires knowledge of social contexts (family dynamics and history, social networks and community resources), unique attributes of homeless individuals and families (values, skills, adaptability), and the meaning the homeless ascribe to their circumstances.          

Implications: Non-homeless family is a critical resource for many homeless in rural areas where services are scarce.  Understanding the role of non-homeless family in coping with homelessness requires knowledge of the nature and quality of relationships and available resources.  Service providers should focus on helping the homeless nurture, and in some cases repair, relationships with non-homeless family members.  Assistance in the form of emergency shelter, transportation, and food may allow the homeless to maintain some level of independence with respect to their non-homeless families and reduce the likelihood of exhausting vital family networks.  Homeless services providers should also create empowering solutions that allow the homeless to earn resources that improve their exchange power within social networks.