One goal for a typology of homeless families would be to identify families' risks for homelessness and barriers to housing in order to address the issues prior to entering shelter so that the incidence of homelessness among families could be reduced. In particular, a prevention-oriented typology would provide the ability to rank families according to levels of risk of homelessness and the probability of a quick exit. Such a typology would allow for distinguishing families in desperate need from those with moderate needs.
There are two concerns with trying to identify families at risk of homelessness on a broad scale, however. First, it is likely that an identification strategy that has fewer "false positives" will be based on a complex risk profile, rather than on one or two factors. As an example, Shinn and colleagues in New York City developed a model including 20 predictors to distinguish new applicants for shelter from the public assistance caseload in 1988 and correctly identified 66 percent of shelter entrants, while targeting 10 percent of the public assistance caseload (Shinn, Weitzman, Stojanovic, Knickman, Jiminez, Duchon, James, and Krantz, 1998). Second, the incidence of homelessness, even among poor families, is still too small to make widespread screening and prevention efficient. Resources targeted to an at-risk population are likely to be spent on more families that would never become homeless, than to reach those families whose homelessness could have been prevented.
A more efficient method for identifying families at risk of homelessness and in need of prevention services might be to use a risk assessment strategy to triage families who present at the shelter door for the first time. Several communities around the country are implementing systems that are using various levels of information to try to determine who can be diverted from the shelter; perhaps with some level of resources, who can be referred elsewhere; and who may require shelter services.
In Hennepin County, Minnesota, homeless service providers have developed a classification system for treatment matching of shelter usage by assessing needs and triaging families in real time. Classification is used at a very practical level and provides a method for service providers to use when making decisions about who receives shelter. In particular, Hennepin County operates the Rapid Exit Program, an innovative program that facilitates rapid rehousing by relying on early identification and resolution of a family's or individual's "housing barriers" and provides the assistance necessary to facilitate their return to permanent housing.
A study of Hennepin County or similar systems would, in effect, provide an opportunity to validate the utility of home-grown typologies.