Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Housing Models. Housing Targeted to People Who Are Homeless


Within the homeless services system, three broad types of housing are targeted specifically to homeless families and individuals: emergency shelter, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing. These three types  and specific models within each type  differ in their physical configuration, the expected tenure of the clients housed, and the degree of choice clients have in selecting where they will live. Each of these types also has its own set of funding streams. While a discussion of the financial models for developing and operating housing for homeless people is beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to note that the features of the different housing types may flow directly from the type of funding available.

Emergency shelters provide overnight shelter, often in a congregate setting. Some may be open during the day, as well. Services vary from minimal information and referral assistance to more intensive case management. Clients have little choice in the terms or conditions of a shelter stay, and the physical facilities may be less than ideal, especially for children. Transitional housing offers longer term but time-limited housing (typically 6 to 24 months), often in single household units or in smaller congregate settings with more intensive services. Clients may have some choice in where they live, depending on the scale of the program. Permanent supportive housing may be offered in these same physical configurations. It is targeted to persons with disabilities and offers intensive services on or off site, either by the same provider that operates the housing or through partnerships with community-based service providers. The level of choice about where to live depends on the program.

The approach to services varies among housing models. Services may be voluntary or required, on site or off site, intensive or limited  irrespective of the physical configuration, tenure conditions, or choice of location offered by the housing with which they are associated. The services offered may include housing search assistance, case management, support for finding and keeping a job, transportation assistance, mental health services, and substance abuse treatment. 

Housing and service models for programs serving people who are homeless have become more diverse since the 1998 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Three papers prepared for the 1998 Symposium addressed aspects of housing models. One paper described approaches to emergency shelter, while another reviewed transitional housing strategies (Feins & Fosburg, 1999; Barrow & Zimmer, 1999). A third paper addressed the broader issue of reconnecting homeless individuals and families to the community, including approaches to fostering residential stability as well as employability and social connections (Rog & Holupka, 1999).

At the time, emergency shelter was viewed as an important first step in moving homeless people  especially families  to stable housing. At the same time, there was increasing recognition that not just shelter, but also services, were needed to help with that transition. The paper on transitional housing described the ambivalence of the policy and practitioner communities toward transitional housing. Its proponents argued that it was the best way to ensure homeless families and individuals received the services they needed to secure and maintain permanent housing. Detractors said it could be stigmatizing and ineffective if there was no next-step housing available at the end of the transitional program. The paper on reconnecting people who have been homeless with the community examined what was known about outcomes with respect to the different housing types and emphasized the importance of stable housing as a prerequisite to reconnecting to employment and social relationships. The paper also reviewed the substantial barriers to effective interventions.

As of the late 1990s, research on housing models and services was limited and inconclusive. Since then, housing and service strategies have evolved, and research and practice have delineated more sharply both the housing and the services components of housing models for homeless people. The key questions that have emerged are:

  1. How quickly and how successfully do homeless families and individuals move to permanent housing?
  2. Are supportive services voluntary or required, and does this make a difference in retention in the program and, ultimately, in housing success?
  3. How independent is the permanent housing; that is, is it a private apartment or group setting? Are others who live there also program clients? Is there on-site or off-site support? What role do these features play in retention and success?

The rest of this section describes the changes in the policy and program context within which programs for homeless people operate and how these changes have affected housing models since the late 1990s.

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