Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Homeless Families and Children. The Role of Subsidies


Increasing the affordability of housing by affecting the supply and cost of housing or increasing disposable income by increasing wages or subsidizing costs of housing, childcare, food, and other essentials would likely prevent homelessness among low-income families as well as end it for the majority who enter shelters. The findings of studies conducted during the 1990s with respect to the role of subsidies and affordable housing in ending family homelessness provide undeniable evidence for the role these supports can play.

In the WFRP, Bassuk, Buckner et al. (1997) found that, controlling for other explanatory variables, cash assistance in the form of AFDC and housing subsidies in the form of Section 8 vouchers or certificates were important protective factors. Ninety-three percent of low-income housed families had received cash assistance in the past year as compared to 72 percent of homeless families in the year prior to their homeless episode. For housing subsidies, these respective figures were 27 percent and 10 percent.

Other studies have indicated that the strongest predictor of exits out of homelessness for families is subsidized housing (Shinn et al., 1998; Zlotnick, Robertson, & Lahiff, 1999). In a longitudinal study of first-time homeless families and a comparison random sample of families on public assistance, residential stability five years after initial shelter entry was predicted only by receipt of subsidized housing (Shinn et al., 1998). Eighty percent of the formerly 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 (Shinn et al.,1998). Additional studies have found that families receiving subsidized housing upon discharge from shelter are less likely to return to shelter than families receiving some other type of placement (Stretch & Krueger, 1992; Wong, Culhane, & Kuhn, 1997). Similarly, after a policy of placing homeless families in subsidized housing was adopted in Philadelphia, the number of families entering shelter who previously had been in shelter dropped from 50 percent in 1987 to less than 10 percent in 1990 (Culhane, 1992).

Demonstration initiatives studying supportive housing with different intensities of services also found high stability rates, regardless of the intensity of the services received. In the nine-city RWJF/HUD study in which homeless families received both Section 8 certificates and various intensities of case management services across the nine sites, 88 percent of the families accessed and remained in permanent housing for up to 18 months (based on 601 families in six sites where follow-up data were available) (Rog & Gutman, 1997). This finding was replicated in a 31-site study of families in the Family Unification Program who received Section 8 certificates and child welfare services. Eighty-five percent or more of the families in each site were still housed after 12 months, despite different eligibility criteria and services across the sites, among other differences (Rog, Gilbert-Mongelli,and Lundy, 1998). Weitzman and Berry (1994), in a smaller study in New York City in the early 1990s, examined an intervention very similar to the RWJF/HUD intervention, involving subsidized housing coupled with short-term intensive case management compared to a group that received subsidized housing but no special services. At the end of a one-year follow-up period, the vast majority of families in both groups were housed, and less then 5 percent had returned to shelter. 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 & Berry, 1994).

The evaluation of the Welfare to Work Voucher Program (HUD, 2004; 2006) provides additional evidence for the effects of tenant-based rental assistance on self-sufficiency. Although the program is not specifically targeted to homeless families, it is targeted to families living on welfare who have a similar demographic profile. The study found that the program resulted in small but significant improvements in the quality of neighborhoods where people lived and that the vouchers greatly reduced a familys probability of becoming unstably housed or homeless.

Finally, examinations of transitional housing suggest that subsidies play an important role in successful transitions for many families. The preliminary evaluation of the Sound Families Initiative in the greater Seattle area indicated that 70 percent of families exiting did so with a Section 8 voucher (NorthwestInstitute for Children and Families, 2005). Moreover, the report concluded that nearly all families needed some type of housing subsidy to secure permanent housing, and in some cases families needed to stay in the transitional housing longer when there were reductions in voucher availability. In a review of53 transitional housing programs across five communities, Burt (2006) found that, on average, 35 percent of those leaving transitional housing left with a subsidy (about half of those going into permanent housing). The percentage ranged by community, with the highest percentage being in Seattle/King County, coinciding with the Sound Families evaluation findings (Northwest Institute for Children and Families, 2005).

Although housing subsidies appear to be a critical resource for exiting or preventing homelessness, a small percentage of families go back to shelters after receiving subsidized housing. In the New York City follow-up study,15 percent of 114 families who obtained housing subsidies returned to shelters at some point during the five-year follow-up period (Stojanovic et al., 1999); in the RWJF/HUD nine-site evaluation, 11 percent of the families entering shelter had previously received a subsidy. In the New York City study, reasons for leaving subsidized housing included serious building problems  safety issues, rats, fire or other disaster; condemnation; or the buildings failure to pass the Section 8 inspection. In the RWJF/HUD study, informal discussions with city officials suggested that families may return to shelter because of failure to renew Section 8 certificates for a variety of reasons.

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