Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Residential Stability


Family homelessness is perhaps most aptly described as a pattern of residential instability. Homeless episodes are typically part of a longer period of residential instability marked by frequent moves, short stays in one’s own housing, and doubling-up with relatives and friends. For example, in the 18 months prior to entering a housing program for homeless families in nine cities (Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Houston, Nashville, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle) families moved an average of five times, spending 7 months in their own place, 5 months literally homeless or in transitional housing, 5 months doubled up, and 1 month in other arrangements. Overall, one-half (53%) had been homeless in the past. It is important to note, however, that this was not a random sample of families, but one selected for a variety of service needs, with “chronic homelessness” (defined as repeated episodes of homelessness) being a marker for some of the families.

Other studies document the lack of stability that homeless families experience. In a more recent study of newly homeless families who were screened for having mental health and/or substance abuse problems in eight sites across the country, less than one-half of the prior 6 months was spent in one’s own home (SAMHSA, 2004). Staying with relatives or friends was the most common living situation during that period for this sample (SAMHSA, 2004) and was also the most common living arrangement for families before entering shelter in Washington State (Lowin et al., 2001). Similarly, Shinn and colleagues found that a key predictor of first-time homelessness for families in New York was frequent mobility, as well as overcrowding (Shinn et al., 1998).

The length of time families stay homeless is a function, in part, of shelter limits on stay and the availability of subsidized housing. The availability and quality of subsidized housing also affects the number of families who return to homelessness. Research has indicated that the strongest predictor of exiting out of homelessness for families is the availability of subsidized housing (Shinn et al., 1998; Zlotnick, Robertson, and Lahiff, 1999). In a longitudinal study of first-time homeless families and a comparison random sample of families on public assistance, residential stability was predicted only by receipt of subsidized housing (Shinn et al., 1998). In followup interviews that occurred 5 years from initial shelter entry, 80 percent of the homeless families who received subsidized housing were stable (i.e., in their own apartment without a move for at least 12 months), compared to only 18 percent who did not receive subsidized housing. The 80 percent figure equaled the percentage for the comparison sample of families from the public assistance caseload. After leaving shelter, formerly homeless families were not part of special case management programs but had access to services generally available to families on public assistance. The study provided strong evidence that subsidized housing was both necessary and sufficient for families to be residentially stable (Shinn et al., 1998).

An earlier followup study of formerly homeless families in St. Louis found similar evidence of the role of subsidies in fostering stability. Of the families who had received housing placements at termination from the shelter and who could be located during the followup period (201 families out of a possible 450 families), those who had received a Section 8 certificate at termination were much less likely to have had a subsequent homeless episode than families who had received some other type of placement (6% vs. 33%) (Stretch and Krueger, 1992).

Finally, studies using administrative records in both New York City and Philadelphia provide additional support for the role of subsidized housing in ending homelessness. In New York City, families discharged from shelters to subsidized housing were the least likely to return to shelter (7.6% over 2 years). Families who were discharged to “unknown arrangements” had the highest rate of shelter return (37%) (Wong, Culhane, and Kuhn, 1997). Similarly, after a policy of placing homeless families in subsidized housing was adopted in Philadelphia, the number of families with repeated shelter visits dropped from 50 percent in 1987 to less than 10 percent in 1990 (Culhane, 1992).

Part of the success of subsidies is that they not only allow homeless people to live affordably, but they generally also allow them to live in safer, more decent housing. In a study of single adults with severe mental illness, Newman and her associates found that Section 8 certificates are associated with improved housing affordability and improved physical dwelling conditions. The quality of the physical housing, in turn, is related to other outcomes, especially residential stability (Newman, Reschovsky, Kaneda, and Hendrick, 1994).

Similarly, in a nine-city study in which homeless families received both Section 8 certificates and case management services, 88 percent of the families accessed and remained in permanent housing for up to 18 months (based on 601 families in six sites where followup data were available) (Rog and Gutman, 1997). Although all families also received some amount of case management and access to other services, the level of service provision varied greatly across and within each of the nine sites and did not appear to differentially affect housing stability. This finding was replicated in an evaluation of families participating in the 31 sites across the country receiving FY 1993 funding under the Family Unification Program (FUP). The FUP, administered by collaborating housing agencies and child welfare agencies, provides families with Section 8 rental assistance and child welfare services. The study found that 85 percent of the families were still housed after 12 months and the finding was almost universal across the 31 sites, despite different eligibility criteria and services, among other differences (Rog, Gilbert-Mongelli, and Lundy, 1998).

A smaller study in New York City in the early 1990s examined a similar intervention involving subsidized housing, coupled with short-term intensive case management, and yielded similar findings. A comparison group received subsidized housing but no special services. At the end of a 1-year followup period, the majority of families in both groups were housed, and less than 5 percent had returned to shelter. Whether or not families had received the intensive services did not affect the outcomes. Rather, the type of subsidized housing received was the strongest single predictor of who would return to shelter, with families in buildings operated by the public housing authority more stable than those in an alternative city program (Weitzman and Berry, 1994).

Although housing subsidies appear to reduce returns to shelter, some families do return after living in subsidized housing. In the New York City followup study, 15 percent of 114 families who obtained housing subsidies returned to shelters at some point during the 5 year followup period (Stojanovic, Weitzman, Shinn, Labay, and Williams, 1999). Reasons for leaving subsidized housing included serious building problems, safety issues, rats, fire or other disaster, condemnation, or the building’s failure to pass the Section 8 inspection. Informal discussions with city officials suggested that families may return to shelter because of failure to renew Section 8 certificates. Similarly, Rog and colleagues (1995b) speculated that failure to complete paperwork might explain some of the dropout of families from the Section 8 voucher program at 30 months in three sites in the nine-city study.

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