Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Housing Models. Implications for Families


The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently developed a set of Promising Practices to End Family Homelessness (2006). The strategies identified include some of the themes reflected in the research cited here:

  • prevention strategies such as landlord mediation, financial assistance to pay back rent or utility bills and emergency assistance;
  • housing first approaches that focus on bypassing or limiting stays at emergency shelters in favor of placement in permanent housing accompanied by intensive but usually time-limited services;
  • expanded tools to pay for housing such as using TANF funds or raising revenues or fees for housing trust funds; and
  • services tailored to meet families needs.

Prevention.  The dilemma of prevention strategies is that it is hard to distinguish a person or family that will become homeless without an intervention from one who will not and, therefore, hard to target resources without the homeless services system taking on the whole burden of providing affordable housing for people with low-incomes. This is particularly the case for homeless families, who may be very difficult to distinguish from other low-income families with unstable housing and job histories and with some level of behavioral health problems. Burt and Pearson (2005) conclude that effective approaches include a single agency or system controlling the eligibility determination process, a community commitment to provide housing subsidies for a particular at-risk population (including funding that may come from a non-housing mainstream source such as the mental health or child welfare system), and having a system in place to provide feedback on success.

Short-term rental assistance mitigates the targeting dilemma for prevention strategies since people are not likely to create a housing crisis in order to get help with security deposits or one or two months rent. Increasing numbers of communities are likely to use this approach as part of their plans to end homelessness for this reason, because of its relatively low cost, and because of the limited availability of longer-term, mainstream rent subsidies.

Rapid placement into permanent housing.  Clearly it is best, particularly for children, if a family can limit the duration of shelter placements or bypass shelters altogether. Given the need for a safe and supportive environment for children, there does not appear to be an analog to safe havens that can be applied to families.

Rapid placement into permanent housing is as promising an approach for families as it is for individuals. However, it is less clear which of the features of the housing first model are relevant to families; for example, whether services should be completely voluntary or whether the family should be expected to enter into a services plan and to follow it after the housing placement.

Transitional housing for families as a housing and services model may well have a role to play in a communitys strategy to end homelessness. However, communities should be clear about the purpose and its precise role in their strategies. Is transitional housing to be targeted for those for whom rapid placement into permanent housing is not feasible  for example, because of active substance abuse or other issues on which progress must be made before public or private providers of mainstream housing will sign a lease? Or, is transitional housing a service-enriched living environment to be offered to those families most likely to use it to lift themselves out of poverty and to give their children better life chances  even though such families could go directly to mainstream permanent housing? Communities that make the latter choice should be aware that doing so can draw funds away from interventions more directly targeted to ending homelessness and should seek to fund this type of transitional housing through broader resources such as TANF or the child welfare system.

Mainstream housing opportunities and permanent supportive housing.  Mainstream permanent housing has a crucial role to play in preventing and ending family homelessness. Findings from the Sound Families program indicate that families with limited supportive services needs can be served effectively in public housing and voucher-assisted units. From the findings on Beyond Shelters programs and on the Family Permanent Supportive Housing Program, we can conclude that mainstream assisted housing can also be appropriate for multi-problem families when sufficient services support is provided. But is this mainstream housing or permanent supportive housing? For families, the line is blurred by the fact that most families with children need intensive services only for a limited time after placement into permanent housing.

This implies that more funding for mainstream assisted housing programs is needed. The alternative is to redirect existing resources (in particular, housing vouchers and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit) to provide access to affordable housing for people leaving homelessness. Which families need long-term intensive services has been little studied. HUDs Shelter Plus Care program answers that question by making only families with a disabled head of household eligible for permanent supportive housing. However, lack of access to mainstream assisted housing may put pressure on communities to develop permanent supportive housing for families using the Supportive Housing Program or local and state resources.

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