Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Accountability, Cost-Effectiveness, and Program Performance: Progress Since 1998.. Some Observations on the Cost of Homelessness Among Families


Homeless families are relatively understudied when it comes to research on the costs of homelessness. A recent study of family shelter utilization patterns and costs has identified a long-stay population that is roughly analogous to the “chronic” shelter stayers identified in the single adult literature (Culhane et al., in press). Most of these families do not have disabilities or other intensive service histories; however, as is the case for single adults without accompanying children, long-stay families represent a minority of the families sheltered (20 percent) but they account for half of the shelter system costs. And these shelter costs alone are quite remarkable. The study included four US jurisdictions, and found that the average cost for the long-stay families ranged from $27,000 to $55,000 per family. These resources are the equivalent of four or more years of a permanent housing subsidy, or they could provide four or more families with a rental subsidy for a year. The prospect of such cost-efficiencies and of supporting more normalized living environments for a larger population suggests that future research is needed on cost-effective alternatives to long shelter stays for families. Furthermore, unlike the research on adult individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, no research to date has looked at the collateral impact of homelessness among families on other service systems such as child welfare, health, mental health, or education. Other research has also shown that homelessness can be costly to the child welfare system. In particular, a recent study compared the cost of juvenile detention and residential treatment for youth to the costs of a housing subsidy, noting that stable housing costs nearly a tenth of institutional placement (Van Leeuwan, 2004). These are areas deserving further investigation, as are the costs and utilization patterns of other non-chronic or non-SMI populations, including transitionally homeless adults and adults with substance abuse problems.

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