Urban Wire Multi-generational disadvantage requires multi-generational solutions
Sarah Gillespie
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For generations, members of Ms. Jones’s (not her real name) family have grown up in public housing. As we chatted in her apartment in a public housing development on the far south side of Chicago, she reflected on not just her own experiences growing up in a building known for its notorious gang violence and deplorable living conditions, but also the housing her mother had grown up in and her daughter’s current struggle to find employment that paid enough so she could move out of her subsidized unit.

While talking about her family’s desire to thrive, Ms. Jones expressed the incredible frustration that comes when your aspirations are stymied at every turn, blocked by what feel like insurmountable obstacles—a bus service that can’t be relied on to get you to work, a route to school that isn’t safe, and local food marts that only sell alcohol and cigarettes.

Some neighborhoods are abundant in positive resources and opportunities, yet far too many others, like Ms. Jones’s, are much more likely to harm than help the families that live there. Recent research has focused national attention on the importance of place for the development of healthy children, families, and communities. Some say “place matters,” others that “zip code shouldn’t determine destiny,” but the central lesson is that where you grow up makes a difference.

Creating opportunities within place

Families in public and assisted housing often need supports and services to help reach their full potential. But for those families that have also experienced the damage and trauma that comes from living in the most distressed neighborhoods, traditional supportive services often fall short. That’s why we designed and implemented the Housing Opportunities and Services Together (HOST) demonstration to test a different strategy.

For the past five years, HOST has brought together families like Ms. Jones’s, public housing agencies, and service providers to collaborate to identify and coordinate needed services to help residents. HOST differs from traditional, light-touch service models by focusing on the strengths and needs of the whole family. Over a period of several years, Ms. Jones worked with her case managers to find increasingly steady employment that would pay the wages she needed to consider moving to unsubsidized housing. Instead of simply referring her to various job fairs or training programs, Ms. Jones’s case manager helped her identify her strengths and address some of the physical and mental health issues that had been a barrier to steady employment.

The family’s case manager also built relationships with Ms. Jones’s children and spent a year supporting her son’s college scholarship search. He’s now a full-time sophomore in college. The case manager checks in with him regularly, because the journey to self-sufficiency doesn’t have a hard stop.

Lessons for federal housing policy

Ms. Jones knows she may have a long road to self-sufficiency and the life she wants, but she is proud her son is already charting a new path. As the first in his family to attend college, he has taken a huge step toward breaking the cycle of disadvantage created in large part by the places his family has lived. This is the promise of two-generation models like HOST.  

Lessons from HOST can help inform federal policymaking efforts to provide services for public- and assisted-housing residents in a way that creates a path to self-sufficiency. Based on our HOST experiences, we’ve written a brief that details our recommendations for these programs, including:

prioritizing two-generation  service models that support the whole family;
requiring rigorous data collection for continuous program improvement; and
building public housing agency capacity to partner with local service providers to provide comprehensive services.

The experiences of Ms. Jones’s family and others who participated in HOST’s Altgeld Gardens program illustrate how disadvantage accumulates across generations in distressed neighborhoods and why whole-family intensive service models are necessary.

This blog is part of the Housing Assistance Matters Initiative which educates Americans about the vital role of housing assistance. The initiative is a project of the Urban Institute, made possible with support from Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.). The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization and retains independent and exclusive control over substance and quality of any Housing Assistance Matters Initiative products. The views expressed in this product are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute or HAI, Inc.

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.