Homeless Children: Update on Research, Policy, Programs, and Opportunities. Interventions

05/15/2010

Interventions for homeless families include subsidized housing, permanent supportive housing, and transitional housing. There are very few studies on any of the interventions, and those that exist are primarily descriptive. Few studies are rigorously designed, most lack comparison groups, and most lack data on children.

Subsidized housing with or without services clearly reduces repeat episodes of homelessness for families. Studies in New York City have found that homeless families that received subsidies were far less likely to return to shelter (Wong et al., 1997) and far more likely to attain long-term stability (Shinn et al., 1998). The policy of providing subsidies to families in shelter also reduced shelter populations in New York (Cragg & O’Flaherty, 1999; O’Flaherty & Wu, 2006) and Philadelphia (Culhane, 1992).

The Homeless Families Program, sponsored by HUD and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, offered Section 8 certificates along with various packages of services to families selected for their recurrent histories of homelessness and other risk factors in nine cities. Housing retention was excellent — 88 percent of the 601 families remained in housing for up to 18 months in the six cities where follow-up data were available — but cities with more intense service packages did not have higher rates of housing stability (Rog et al., 1995a, 1995b). Informal discussions with providers suggested that failure to renew Section 8 certificates was one reason for returns to shelter (Rog & Buckner, 2007).

Intensive permanent supportive housing programs have also shown excellent housing stability and modest rates of parental employment or participation in education programs (e.g., Nolan et al., 2004; Philliber Research Associates, 2006; see also summary by Bassuk et al., 2006). However, these studies have not included comparison groups, making it hard to know whether families would have done as well with less intensive interventions. More restrictive programs had lower retention rates but may have had benefits for family self-sufficiency and reunification with children who were separated (Bassuk et al., 2006; Philliber Research Associates, 2006). But again, without studies where comparable groups are assigned to different programs, this is difficult to judge. It is also not clear what proportion of families would benefit from these intensive programs.

A large-scale study of transitional housing, the Sound Families Program in the Seattle area, which served 1,487 families between 2000 and 2007, was primarily descriptive (Northwest Institute for Children and Families, 2007). A quarter of families (25 percent) were asked to leave (Northwest Institute for Children and Families, 2006). However, consistent with results in both experimental and control groups of the SAMHSA Homeless Families Program (described on p. 16), families that stayed showed gains over time in employment, income, and attendance and school stability for children. 

Shinn, Samuels, and Fischer (under review), randomized homeless families in which the mother had a mental illness or substance problem to a Family Critical Time Intervention or to usual care in Westchester, New York. The intervention involved rapid re-housing in the community and caseworkers who followed families from shelter to housing in the community in a nine-month program designed to establish a relationship with the mother, link the family to community services, and withdraw. The comparison group also received casework services, but from multiple workers, and were provided housing, but not as quickly as that provided the experimental group. Children in the experimental group did modestly better or showed greater improvements on mental health and school outcomes than children in the comparison group. Effects of the intervention were less consistent than children’s general improvement over time in both groups as their families left shelter and returned to the community.

There is a dearth of rigorous studies of child outcomes of interventions for homeless families. However, HUD has funded a large-scale study (conducted by Abt Associates) to randomize 2,400 homeless families across 12 sites to four housing and service interventions: subsidy only, rapid re-housing, transitional housing, and usual care. The study will include a small amount of data based on parent report on one target child per family.

Finally, homeless children are likely to benefit from the same sorts of interventions that help other poor children. For example, Schteingart, Molnar, Klein, Lowe, and Hartmann (1995) found that early childhood education improved the developmental status of both homeless and housed preschoolers (although both groups fared poorly compared to norms); however, there were no differences between the homeless and housed groups.

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