Urban Wire What would it take to end family homelessness?
Sarah Gillespie
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In February, the Obama administration announced a multi-pronged approach to ending family homelessness. But what does “ending” really mean?

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), the working definition is that no family will be without shelter; should homelessness occur, it will be rare and brief. The HEARTH Act, which governs federal homeless emergency assistance programs, specifies that in high-performing communities, average homelessness should be less than 20 days and the share of people who return to homelessness within two years should be less than 5 percent.

According to USICH, the 2013 Point-In-Time Count found 70,960 families (222,197 people) homeless on a night in January, an 8-percent decline since 2010.

Though family homelessness is now declining, it was on the rise just a few years ago. In 2013, families accounted for 36 percent of the homeless population—58 percent of those family members were children. Homelessness damages children’s physical and emotional health, development and education, and undermines family stability. Homeless children are more likely to repeat grades in school compared with children in families receiving housing assistance; homelessness is the reason for foster placement for as many as three in ten foster children; nearly half experience symptoms of anxiety or depression.

To end family homelessness, the Interagency Council’s plan calls for four key strategy areas for federal, state, and local action:

  • A coordinated entry system
  • interventions tailored to the needs of families
  • linkages to local mainstream systems, and
  • A collection of evidence-based practices for this specific population.

When it comes to these four strategy areas, here’s what we know:

Not every family needs the same response when they experience homelessness. The crisis response system should incorporate coordinated interventions tailored to each family. To secure stable housing, a short-term solution may be enough for some families, but others may need a more long-term solution to interrupt the frequent-move, shelter-use cycle.

Yet very few differences exist between families with shorter and longer stays in the shelter system, even when compared with other low-income housed families. These families tend to have relatively low barriers to exiting the shelter system and almost universally do well with respect to their housing outcomes when they exit with housing subsidies, regardless of their length of stay in shelter.

A small number of families (2 to 8 percent of families using the shelter system), however, access shelter on a much higher average, three or more times the average use of other families.  This subset is more likely to have a younger, female head of household and high rates of intensive service use, including involvement with behavioral health and child protective services.  This group of families’ need for intensive services and a permanent housing solution points to the need for a supportive housing intervention within a system of coordinated responses to end family homelessness.

Here’s what we still need to learn:

How can we assess what is “enough” support for homeless families?  We are still trying to understand how interventions such as transitional housing and rapid re-housing outcomes compare in cost to communities.  The HUD Family Options Study is looking at both of these interventions, along with permanent subsidy and usual care.

How can we target families for whom supportive housing is most appropriate? The Urban Institute is conducting a national evaluation of a supportive housing demonstration for families involved in the child welfare system. Building on previous work by Vanderbilt University, this study will address how to prioritize high-need families at the intersection of the homeless and child welfare systems, an empirical question and a focal point of the evaluation which just launched this year.

The number of unsheltered families may be decreasing each year, but to meet the 2020 goal, we need to learn how to help families living in the shelter system successfully exit to permanent housing.


Photo by David Goldman/AP


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Research Areas Families Housing
Tags Family and household data Homelessness Economic well-being