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Mary K. Cunningham

Senior fellow
Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center

Mary Cunningham is a Senior Research Associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center at the Urban Institute, where her research focuses on homelessness, housing, concentrated poverty and efforts to improve family self-sufficiency and overall well-being among low-income families. Ms. Cunningham?s work managing and directing qualitative and quantitative research studies includes developing research designs, survey instruments, in-depth interview guides and statistical and qualitative data analysis. She has expertise in a number of HUD homelessness and assisted housing programs, including Permanent Supportive Housing, Transitional Housing, Emergency Shelter, Housing Choice Vouchers, Family Self-Sufficiency, HOPE VI, and the Moving to Opportunity Demonstration.

Ms. Cunningham was a researcher at UI from 1997 to 2005. Prior to her return in 2008, Ms. Cunningham launched and directed the Homeless Research Institute (HRI), the research and education arm of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. While directing the Homelessness Research Institute, Ms. Cunningham researched and wrote extensively on homelessness and poverty. She co-chaired a Research Council on homelessness comprised of nationally recognized academics and policy researchers, and authored numerous reports, including A Research Agenda for Ending Homelessness and Homelessness Counts. Ms. Cunningham has an MPP from Georgetown University. She is currently directing study that examines the impact of housing vouchers on child welfare involvement and homelessness and writing a book on homelessness.



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Helping Families Involved in the Child Welfare System Achieve Housing Stability (Research Report)
Mary K. Cunningham, Mike Pergamit, Abigail Baum, Jessica Luna

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)‘s Family Unification Program (FUP) provides low-income families involved in the child welfare system with housing vouchers. FUP is an important vehicle for understanding three issues: (1) the overlap between the child welfare system, housing, and homelessness; (2) how to provide housing to vulnerable, high-need families; and (3) how to facilitate cross-system partnerships between public housing agencies and child welfare agencies. The Urban Institute studied FUP design and implementation in eight sites and interviewed key staff and stakeholders about the program’s implementation and impact, highlighting common challenges, innovative practices, and system-level impacts.

Posted to Web: February 11, 2015Publication Date: February 11, 2015

Supportive Housing for High-Need Families in the Child Welfare System (Research Report)
Mary K. Cunningham, Mike Pergamit, Marla McDaniel, Maeve Gearing, Simone Zhang, Brent Howell

Supportive Housing is an intervention that combines affordable housing with intensive wrap around services. The intervention has been successful with hard to serve populations, such as chronically homeless adults. Communities are testing the efficacy of supportive housing with high-need child welfare families to learn if providing supportive housing helps improve outcomes for children and families, spend taxpayer dollars more wisely, and lead to long-lasting systems change and service integration. The Partnership to Demonstrate the Effectiveness of Supportive Housing for Families in the Child Welfare System is a federal demonstration investigating these important questions. This brief describes the purpose and design of the demonstration and profiles the five program sites.

Posted to Web: November 12, 2014Publication Date: November 13, 2014

Homeless LGBTQ Youth (Research Brief)
Mary K. Cunningham, Mike Pergamit, Nan Astone, Jessica Luna

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning (LGBTQ) youth are over-represented among the homeless youth population. Researchers and practitioners are working to improve data on homeless youth, especially LGBTQ youth, across the country. This brief summarizes the findings on LGBTQ homeless youth counted during the 2013 YouthCount!, a federal interagency initiative that aims to improve counts of unaccompanied homeless youth. The brief also shares best practices on how to improve counts of LGBTQ homeless youth, and areas where policymakers can act to improve LGBTQ youth outcomes.

Posted to Web: August 21, 2014Publication Date: August 21, 2014

A Proposed Demonstration of a Flat Rental Subsidy for Very Low Income Households (Series/What Works Collaborative)
Mary K. Cunningham, Josh Leopold, Pamela Lee

This paper looks at alternative rental assistance programs that fall somewhere between HCVs and emergency assistance, a program that could target families with housing instability whose incomes are very low, but not extremely low. This would allow HCVs to serve extremely low income households, but offer alternative to waiting for emergency assistance. The paper begins with an overview of federal and local rental assistance programs and their incapacity to address the growing need for affordable housing. Then, it reviews the existing literature on alternative forms of rental assistance. Finally, it outlines the recommended components for a demonstration to rigorously test the impacts of one alternative assistance program: a flat, shallow subsidy. This paper is sponsored by the What Works Collaborative, a foundation-supported partnership that conducts timely research and analysis to help inform the implementation of an evidence-based housing and urban policy agenda. The What Works Collaborative has funded a handful of incubator projects that complete the first steps toward larger-scale research projects that can be funded in the future. The goal of this incubator project is to outline a proposed demonstration to test alternative rental assistance programs to help families afford housing and decrease residential instability.

Posted to Web: February 18, 2014Publication Date: January 29, 2013

Youth Count! Process Study (Research Report)
Mike Pergamit, Mary K. Cunningham, Martha R. Burt, Pamela Lee, Brent Howell, Kassie Dumlao Bertumen

Homelessness among unaccompanied youth is a hidden problem: the number of young people who experience homelessness each year is largely unknown. To improve the national response to youth homelessness, policymakers need better data on the magnitude of the problem. Youth Count! is a Federal interagency initiative that aims to improve counts of unaccompanied homeless youth. Nine communities participated in the initiative by expanding their annual homeless point-in-time efforts to increase coverage of homeless youth. Urban Institute conducted a process study of the initiative to identify promising practices that could be adapted and taken to scale to produce credible and useful data nationwide.

Posted to Web: July 30, 2013Publication Date: July 30, 2013

Counting Homeless Youth: Promising Practices from the Youth Count! Initiative (Research Report)
Mike Pergamit, Mary K. Cunningham, Martha R. Burt, Pamela Lee, Brent Howell, Kassie Dumlao Bertumen

Knowing how many youth are homeless is a critical first step in helping them, but it's not easy to count a hidden population. Nine communities across the United States set out to improve their counts through the Youth Count! Initiative. The Urban Institute observed their work and drew out promising practices and lessons for improvement.

Posted to Web: July 30, 2013Publication Date: July 30, 2013

Expanding Choice: Practical Strategies for Building a Successful Housing Mobility Program (Research Report)
Molly M. Scott, Mary K. Cunningham, Jennifer Biess, Additional Authors

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program provides low income households the ability to affordably rent decent housing practically anywhere in the United States. And yet, voucher holders largely live in a relatively small number of low opportunity neighborhoods. In order to fully exercise their housing choice, program participants need quality information about the housing options available and tools to overcome real and perceived barriers in the private rental market. Drawing on the best available research and model programs from across the country, this toolkit provides practical advice on how to plan and implement a housing mobility program to overcome these challenges.

Posted to Web: February 15, 2013Publication Date: February 15, 2013

Housing as a Platform for Improving Education Outcomes among Low-Income Children (Series/What Works Collaborative)
Mary K. Cunningham, Graham MacDonald

This policy framing paper is one of three that explores the potential for housing combined with support services to create better outcomes for vulnerable populations. Many experts believe that housing can be a platform for academic achievement among low-income students by providing a stable environment where children access high-performing schools and succeed academically. While existing evidence links a lack of safe, high quality housing with low academic performance, little research explores how housing can be a positive pathway to achieving better school outcomes. The authors develop a field building research scheme that addresses this gap to help inform policymakers and practitioners working to meet the needs of this at-risk group. This framing paper is part of a series of field-building research agendas produced under the What Works Collaborative. More information can be found on the What Works Collaborative web page.

Posted to Web: May 07, 2012Publication Date: May 07, 2012

Improving Neighborhood Location Outcomes in the Housing Choice Voucher Program: A Scan of Mobility Assistance Programs (Series/What Works Collaborative)
Mary K. Cunningham, Molly M. Scott, Chris Narducci, Sam Hall, Alexandra Stanczyk

This paper provides findings from a rapid scan of mobility programs, including interviews with program staff, from across the country. The paper concludes with recommendations for future research, including suggestions on how to design a demonstration program that tests the impact of mobility assistance program.

Posted to Web: October 13, 2010Publication Date: September 01, 2010

Finally Voting with Their Feet: Unleashing Market Discipline by Providing Choice to Public Housing Residents (Commentary)
Molly M. Scott, Mary K. Cunningham

This commentary shares insights from Urban Institute research into the resident choice option for families living in public housing under HUD's new draft legislation, the Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance Act of 2010.

Posted to Web: September 13, 2010Publication Date: September 13, 2010

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