ACU (Australian Catholic University)

Insight

Issue 3, Summer 2011

Different from you and me?

Different from you and me

Dr Justin Barker from ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies looks at the social, emotional and material consequences of being a homeless father.

The Institute of Child Protection Studies at ACU was established in January 2005 to carry out high quality practice research, evaluation and professional development to enhance outcomes for children, young people and their families.

It was established as a partnership between the ACT Department of Disability, Housing and Community Services and the University.

Through its activities, the Institute aims to influence policy and practice to achieve positive social change. One of the benefits of the Institute is it’s strength in rigorous academic research and its direct translation into policy and practice. It does this by building partnerships with government non-government and community organisations.

Homeless fathers – different to you and I?

“Fatherhood, for me, opened up a world of joy, fear, hope and anxiety that I had never experienced before. The connection I have with my children is profound. Consequently, my identity and the way I see the world has forever changed. Why would we expect anything different from homeless men?

The role and identity of homeless men as fathers has been a largely ignored aspect of homelessness. This is in part due to our assumptions about homelessness and homeless men in particular.

Even within services that work with homeless men, we rarely think of these people as being concerned with anything else aside from their own needs. Homeless men are often thought of as free-floating individuals, almost dysfunctional in their autonomy and separation from family and the community.

Rarely do people think of homeless men as being fathers intimately connected to their children, even when they’re unable to be with them. In a collaborative research project funded by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies, Hanover Welfare Services, and Melbourne Citymission, we set out to identify the social, emotional and material consequences of being a homeless father.

We found that homelessness affects the ability to be a father, and that fatherhood changed the experience of homelessness. Homelessness is rarely a matter of just having no home.

The men we met all experienced a mixture of personal, social and structural factors that lead to and reinforced their marginalisation. The further ingredient of fatherhood adds to the complexity. Whether with children, or unable to be with them, the conditions of homelessness restrict the ability of fathers to provide for and nurture their children the way these men wanted to.

This struggle and despair added further strain to lives already under pressure.

Perhaps we expect people who have come from traumatic family histories to have different, somewhat broken, expectations and hopes for their own children. I would suggest quite the opposite. Many of the homeless fathers were driven by a desire for their children to not experience what they had, but lacked the resources and supports to provide this.

The lack of services that support homeless fathers is not only a tangible barrier to them having a relationship with their children; it is symbolic of the little value attributed to their role as a father. For men who are often seen as social outcasts, their role as a father is one part of their identity that can be valued.

The wellbeing and safety of children is paramount. This sentiment was shared by the homeless fathers. Some of the men protected their children from the unsafe and unstable living conditions they were experiencing by restricting contact.

Others did not want their children to see how they lived and believed their children were better off without having contact with them, but this did not stop them from feeling despair and longing to be with their children.

There is a growing recognition of the importance of fathers in healthy child development. Our research highlights how children are important to the wellbeing of fathers, just as fathers are important to children’s’ wellbeing. Supporting homeless fathers who long to provide their children with lives better than theirs can have a positive impact on the intergenerational effects of homelessness.

When we look at homeless men and women we need to be aware that, despite our assumptions, these people can be intimately connected to other people. Even those people that are physically isolated are emotionally connected to others. Even when alone and unable to be with those that we care about, people carry with them more than just themselves.

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