Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Section 1: How Many Families with Children are Homeless and What Kind of Permanent Housing Do They Need?


An estimate based on the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) is that in 1996 there were 60,860 families with children currently experiencing homelessness.1, 2 Another 101,840 homeless adults were parents of children under the age of 18 whose children do not live with them. While it is unrealistic to assume that all of the parents whose children do not live with them will be reunited with their children, this is often a basic objective both for the parents themselves and for the service providers that help them to set and achieve goals. Thus, the number of permanent housing units needed for families who are attempting to leave homelessness and become permanently housed is somewhere between 60,900 and 162,700.

This NSHAPC estimate is a point-in-time count of families who were homeless at the time the survey was conducted. The NSHAPC also can provide estimates of the number of parents who have experienced homelessness at some time in their life. Administrative data on homelessness from Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) ultimately will make possible more sophisticated estimates of the number of families who are homeless at some time during a calendar year and the average length of time they are homeless. These analyses of the flow of families in and out of homelessness will be superior for analyzing both the type of permanent housing needed by families who become homeless and the number of permanent housing units needed. For the time being, however, the information from the NSHAPC on parents and children homeless at a point in time in 1996 is the best available for determining the numbers and characteristics of permanent housing units needed by homeless families and for comparing those numbers and characteristics to resources available from housing subsidy programs.

Families who are doubled up but not at imminent risk of homelessness (i.e., did not tell the interviewers that they were about to have to leave) are not included because it is very difficult to determine how many of those families will actually become homeless. Without tools for predicting homelessness superior to those available now, any estimate that included high risk families would merge into estimates of families severe housing needs for housing assistance, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) estimates of “worst case needs” among unassisted renters with very low incomes. Similarly, in the following sections, resources or policies for preventing homelessness are not focused on. An updated estimate of the total number of people who are homeless is not used because no one knows whether that number has grown or decreased since 1996.

What types of housing units do families exiting homelessness need? Exhibit 1 provides estimates of the units of different sizes needed by parents who are homeless, derived from NSHAPC. The standard policy assumption is that all families with children need two sleeping rooms—one for the parent(s) and one for the child or children. A parent or parents with an infant could get along with only one bedroom for a time, but because the interest is in having families become stable in permanent housing, one assumes that children need their own sleeping room. Families with two or more children may need three bedrooms, depending on the numbers and ages of the children and the gender of older children in families with two or more.

Since the NSHAPC has limited information on the gender of children, the estimate in this exhibit is based just on numbers of children under 18, assuming that a parent with one or two children needs two bedrooms, with three or four children needs three bedrooms, and with five or more children needs at least four bedrooms. The exhibit provides two estimates. It shows, first, the number of units with two, three, and more than three bedrooms needed by the family members who are in the homeless services system as a family unit. Thus, if permanent housing were provided for all homeless families counting only the children who are with the homeless parent, the total units of permanent housing needed would be 60,860 and 14,700 of those units would need to have three bedrooms.

Category Number of units needed for family members homeless together Number of units needed for all family members of homeless parents Number of units needed if 25 percent of parents homeless alone are reunited with their children Percentage of units needed that have number of bedrooms
Exhibit 1:
Permanent housing units needed by parents who have become homeless and their children, by unit size
Two bedrooms 44,350 108,110 63,040 73
Three bedrooms 14,700 40,670 20,230 23
More than three bedrooms 1,810 13,920 3,050 4
Total 60,860 162,700 86,320 100

The exhibit then shows the number of units of different sizes that would be needed if the exit from homelessness to permanent housing always resulted in all children under the age of 18 becoming part of the household living in the permanent housing unit. The total units needed increases to 162,700, and the total of three bedroom units increases to 40,670.

The reality is that not all children who have become separated from their parents will be reunited with them when the parent leaves homelessness. Some children will have been adopted, and many will continue to live with a custodial parent who is not homeless. Many of the parents who told the NSHAPC interviewers about children who did not live with them were men; and 46 percent of the minor children of homeless parents were reported to be living with the other parent (Burt, Aaron, and Lee, 2001). Other children will continue to live with a grandparent or other relative. In some cases the child protection system will not be willing to return legal or physical custody of the child to a parent leaving homelessness, even if that parent is able to acquire suitable and stable housing. Therefore, in the third column of the table, an intermediate estimate is provided based on the crude assumption that one-fourth of the parents without children present will be reunited with their children.3

The total number of units needed is 86,320, and of those units 73 percent are two-bedroom units, 23 percent are three bedroom units, and 4 percent have more than three bedrooms. These are the numbers that will form the starting point for comparison with available permanent housing units.

Another important aspect of the permanent housing needed by families leaving homelessness is the nature and intensity of supportive services that formerly homeless families will need in permanent housing and whether those services require housing with features not generally provided in private market housing or in subsidized housing developments. How many homeless families need permanent housing with intensive supportive services? The literature suggests that severe mental illness is not common among the adults in families that are homeless (Rog et al., 2005). Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common, but do not imply intensive services linked to housing. Substance abuse is common, but recovery based on treatment that is limited in duration may be more than likely for parents trying to leave homelessness with children than it is for homeless individuals and thus may not require the ongoing, intensive services associated with permanent supportive housing.

One turns again to the NSHAPC to attempt to estimate the number of families that need permanent supportive housing rather than mainstream rental housing. To estimate the size of the group needing permanent supportive housing, those families were included who met either of the following criteria:

  • They reported having a alcohol, drug, or mental health problem in the past month and
    • They had been homeless more than once and the current episode lasted more than 6 months, or
    • They reported receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits in the past
  • They reported receiving SSI or SSDI benefits in the past and never having owned or rented a place where their name was on the lease.

Based on these assumptions, 22,130 families with children who were homeless at a point in time in 1996 needed permanent supportive housing (Exhibit 2). This is a very crude estimate and clearly is one of the key areas that need more work before a good typology of homeless families can be developed. The ability of parents with long-term disabilities or patterns of chronic homelessness may have been underestimated nonetheless to live in mainstream permanent housing without intensive services.

Among families who are homeless at a point in time, there are some whose homelessness is a single event of short duration and who can return to permanent housing without the help of a rental subsidy. To estimate the size of this group, one assumes that those who told the NSHAPC interviewers that help with their housing was not one of their priority needs were making an accurate assessment of their situation only if, in addition to this self-assessment of their housing need, they met all of the following three criteria:

  • This was their first episode of homelessness,
  • They had been homeless for 6 months or less, and
  • They did not report receiving SSI or SSDI benefits.

Based on these assumptions, there were 8,740 families who were homeless in 1996 but could have left homelessness for unsubsidized rental housing.  After subtracting the group that can use unsubsidized permanent housing and the group that needs permanent supportive housing, consider that the residual group needs subsidized mainstream housing: 55,450 families with children.


Unsubsidized mainstream housing

Subsidized mainstream housing

Permanent supportive housing

Exhibit 2:
Permanent housing units needed by parents who have become homeless and their children,
by type of permanent housing and unit size
Two bedrooms 6,890 39,430 16,820
Three bedrooms 1,320 14,290 4,190

More than three bedrooms

530 1,730 1,120
Total 8,740 55,450 22,130

These point-in-time estimates do not capture the total number of homeless families who will need subsidized mainstream housing or permanent supportive housing during the course of a year. Between 2½ and 4 times as many adults probably were homeless at some time during 1996 as were during the short period during which NSHAPC data were collected (Burt, Aaron, and Lee, 2001).

On the other hand, multiplying the NSHAPC-based estimates by as large a factor as 4 would overstate the number of parents who need subsidized mainstream housing when leaving homelessness, compared to those who can return to permanent housing without a subsidy. Those who remain homeless for longer periods and, therefore, form a larger fraction of point-in-time estimates are more needy on average than those with single or shorter episodes of homelessness.4 Therefore, for comparisons in the next section of the chapter with the number of units of assisted housing that turn over each year, the number of parents needing mainstream subsidized housing shown in Exhibit 2 has been multiplied by 3.

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