Supportive housing does so much more than help families facing or at risk of facing homelessness access stable housing: it also helps them stay together, reduces time in foster care, and, when targeted to families most at risk for separation, it can save the child welfare system money.
Supportive housing is an intervention that evidence (PDF) shows helps homeless populations, including families, veterans, single adults, adults with severe mental illness, and adults with criminal justice involvement. An important element of supportive housing is the Housing First principle, which holds that people need access to housing before they can meet other needs and goals, such as being drug free or finding a job. Services are voluntary and available for as long as they’re needed.
A Children’s Bureau demonstration in five sites tested whether supportive housing could benefit high-need families involved in the child welfare system. Urban evaluated the demonstration using a randomized controlled trial, and a recently completed long-term follow-up showed that supportive housing can be effective at keeping families together.
Supportive housing benefits both families and child welfare agencies
Our evaluation revealed four major benefits of supportive housing:
- It keeps families together by reducing removals to foster care and increasing reunifications from foster care.
- Less time in foster care reduces the child welfare system’s spending on foster care and related services. Savings are substantial when supportive housing is targeted to families at greatest risk for having their children placed in out-of-home care. The same is true when supportive housing is targeted to families who show the most benefits, particularly those where the caregiver has a substance use issue.
- Supportive housing provides people facing interpersonal violence with an alternative living situation, which increases their and their children’s safety.
- Once they have secure housing, parents can focus on completing their child welfare case plans and caring for their children.
Child welfare agencies need more housing resources
Our findings suggest child welfare agencies should see supportive housing as an effective way to keep families together, which is a goal of the Family First Preservation Services Act of 2018 (FFPSA). The FFPSA shifted child welfare agencies’ focus from placing children in foster care to preventing the need to remove children from their parents’ homes. Funds normally used for foster care parents can now be used for services including substance use treatment, mental health treatment, and in-home parenting support. Recent changes to the FFPSA also allow community-based organizations to use these funds to prevent families from becoming involved with the child welfare system.
These are key services that can be part of a supportive housing program, but child welfare agencies lack direct access to housing. To remedy that, child welfare agencies could partner with their local housing agencies and advocates for more housing resources at the state and federal levels. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Family Unification Program is one opportunity to provide housing for families involved in the child welfare system. Housing agencies could take other steps to help these families too, such as prioritizing child welfare–involved families in their administrative plans.
Congress could also take steps to support these families. It could amend the FFPSA to allow funds to be used for bridge housing until families can access permanent housing, because families using vouchers to subsidize their housing often find that the application, search, and leasing processes can take months—at a time when they’re also dealing with the stress of child welfare involvement.
Our study shows that housing matters, not only for housing stability but also for strengthening families and keeping them out of the child welfare system. Increased funding for housing supports would be not just an investment in housing but an investment in families and in the reduced use of crisis systems like the child welfare system.