Strategic Action Plan on Homelessness. Broadening the Plan to Incorporate a Focus on Homeless Families with Children and Youth


The Change

When the Secretary established the Secretarys Work Group on Ending Chronic Homelessness in 2002, the Work Group was to report recommendations for a Department-wide approach that would contribute to the Administrations goal of ending chronic homelessness and improve the Departments ability to assist persons experiencing chronic homelessness.  As the title of the 2003 Strategic Action Plan indicates (Ending Chronic Homelessness: Strategies for Action) the focus of the Work Group was on chronic homelessness.  For the last three years, however, the Work Group has actively tracked the efforts of numerous components of HHS to improve access to treatment and services for all eligible groups, including chronically homeless individuals, homeless families with children, and homeless youth.  While chronic homelessness has remained a priority, the Department has also engaged in other homelessness related activities that affect families with children and youth, who make up a substantial portion of the HHS clientele.

The goals and strategies from the 2003 Strategic Action Plan framework specifically focused on chronic homelessness.  For example, the language in Goals 1 and 2 used the terms chronically homeless and chronic homelessness, and the same two terms were also used throughout the different strategies under all three goals.  In order to accurately capture the clientele served by all homelessness-relevant HHS programs, the Work Group decided that the plan would have to be broader in scope.  Therefore, the goals and strategies were edited to include families and youth, where applicable.  In general, phrases such as chronically homeless individuals were substituted by homeless individuals and families so as to be inclusive of families and children experiencing homelessness, while still including individuals experiencing homelessness, whether chronic or episodic.  However, in order to maintain chronic homelessness as a priority, the Work Group highlights chronic homelessness in a few different strategies in the new framework.  Additionally, the new Goal 4 (which will be discussed in more detail below) also takes a broader approach and applies to the whole of the HHS clientele, including individuals and families.

The Rationale

Evidence of the growing number of homeless families supports the expanded scope of the Departments strategic action plan to include homeless families with children.  Findings from the research literature show that families are a significant subgroup that warrants specific attention and interventions that may differ from those that are successful in serving homeless individuals. 

According to the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, 34 percent of all persons using homeless services were members of a homeless family (Burt et al 1999), though more recent studies (Shinn, et. al 1998) estimate that families make up roughly 40 percent of those who become homeless.  The U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey of 23 cities (2006), report that requests for shelter from homeless families increased by 5% over the previous year, with 59% of the 23 cities reporting an increase.  For the purposes of this strategic action plan, a homeless family is defined as one or two adults accompanied by at least one minor child who are either not housed or who have had periods during some recent time period during which they lacked housing.  A significant body of research documents the broad array of negative health and mental health outcomes experienced by both children and their mothers in association with episodes of homelessness.

Current research indicates that homeless families are more similar to poor housed families than to single homeless individuals (Burt, et al 1999; Bassuk et al 1996).  Several studies have compared housed and non-housed low-income families in an effort to document what characteristics or contextual factors influence a low-income familys probability of experiencing homelessness.  While these studies each examine the experiences of homeless families in only one city, and therefore are not nationally representative, the studies report similar results.  In general, researchers have found that heads of homeless families have higher rates of victimization, mental illness, and substance abuse along with weaker social networks, less robust employment histories, and lower incomes than the heads of housed low-income families (Bassuk et al 1996; Bassuk et al 1997; Shinn et al 1998).  Additionally, homeless heads of household tend to be younger and tend to have younger children than their housed counterparts (Shinn et al 1998; Webb et all 2003).

In considering which families might be at greatest risk for homelessness, one must consider individual characteristics that might indicate a higher chance of experiencing homelessness, such as substance abuse or mental illness; family factors, such as the presence of violence in the home; as well as contextual factors, such as a lack of affordable housing in the community.  Other issues related to the causes and consequences of family homelessness, such as a familys interaction with the child welfare or foster care systems, may be important as the dynamics of children and their parent(s) while they move through the shelter system may not be the same (Park et al 2004).  Fifty-five percent of the cities participating in the 2006 Hunger and Homelessness Survey report that families may have to separate in order to be sheltered (U.S. Conference of Mayors 2006).  Many studies have documented a large number of single homeless individuals, primarily women, who are parents but are no longer residing with their children (Burt et al 1999).  A number of other studies indicate that housing instability in childhood appears to be associated with adolescent homelessness, suggesting that housing stabilization for homeless or poorly housed families may contribute to the prevention of chronic homelessness (Robertson et al 1999; Park et al 2004).

Runaway and homeless youth, defined in the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act as individuals who are not more than 21 years of age ... for whom it is not possible to live in a safe environment with a relative and who have no other safe alternative living arrangement, may have different needs than homeless youth who are still connected to their families due to runaway and homeless youths lack of adult supervision during a homeless episode.  Other youth who may be at-risk of homelessness include youth who are aging out of foster care or exiting the juvenile justice system (Farrow et al 1992).  After reviewing the range of estimates of the number of homeless youth, Robertson and Toro concluded that youth under the age of 18 may be at higher risk for homelessness than adults (1999).

HHS operates a wide range of programs that may be accessed by homeless families with children and runaway and homeless youth.  The following is a list of HHS programs (both targeted and mainstream) that provide services to homeless families:

Figure 2.
HHS Programs That May Provide Services to Homeless Families and Homeless Youth

Targeted Programs:

  • Health Care for the Homeless (HRSA)
  • Programs for Runaway and Homeless Youth (ACF)

Mainstream Programs:

  • Community Mental Health Services Block Grant Program (SAMHSA)
  • Community Health Centers (HRSA)
  • Community Services Block Grant (ACF)
  • Family Violence Prevention and Service Grants (ACF)
  • Head Start (ACF)
  • Medicaid (CMS)
  • Social Services Block Grant (ACF)
  • State Childrens Health Insurance Program (CMS)
  • Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant (SAMHSA)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (ACF)
  • Title V Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant (HRSA)

Expanding the scope of the strategic action plan to encompass family and youth homelessness will formalize the Departments already ongoing efforts to assist homeless families with children and youth, as well as tie the work of the Departments agencies closely to the Secretarys goals and objectives for the Department as a whole.

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