Ending Family Homelessness: What Works and What Does It Cost?

by Matt Lawyue

In 2010, the Obama administration laid out bold plans to curb homelessness within the decade. Modified in 2015, the Opening Doors program seeks to end homelessness among veterans in 2015; end chronic homelessness in 2017; and end homelessness for families with youth and children in 2020. The data tell us that veteran homelessness dipped 35 percent between 2009 and 2015. Chronic homelessness declined 31 percent between 2010 and 2015. But family homelessness dropped just 15 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Progress is certainly evident, but a wide margin remains in ending family homelessness. More than 64,000 families were homeless in 2015, according to the national point-in-time count, and these households had an average of three people each. This societal problem needs an effective solution. Study after study shows the detriments of housing instability and the long-term impact it can have on families and youth. Additionally, housing concerns are spreading across the country, where more than 2.8 million renters think their household will likely face eviction in the next few months. With 2017 bringing a new administration and the potential closure of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, how can policymakers turn the tide against family homelessness? A new study might provide some concrete next steps.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has released the final report of its three-year Family Options Study, and the results could have major implications on reaching the 2020 goal. The evaluation is the most comprehensive, rigorous study of family homelessness programs to date. During HUD’s quarterly update, Secretary Julián Castro declared its importance plainly: “This can’t be something that goes up on the shelf.”

Using a randomized controlled trial, the research team tracked nearly 2,300 homeless families assigned to different interventions to understand their outcomes over three years. All the families had spent at least a week at an emergency shelter before enrolling. They were randomly assigned to one of four types of programs: a permanent, long-term subsidy (typically a housing voucher); community-based rapid rehousing; project-based transitional housing; and usual care (i.e., emergency shelter plus whatever programs families could access on their own). Researchers found that the permanent housing subsidy showed notable improvements in housing stability compared with the other options, and was the best option for reducing family homelessness.

“The power of offering a long-term subsidy to families experiencing homelessness is deep,” said Katherine O’Regan, assistant secretary for policy development and research at HUD. “This is an intervention they want. By the end of three years, 88 percent had taken up the subsidy.”

Perhaps most intriguing about this study are the costs of each intervention. As Dennis Culhane demonstrated, by using rigorous evidence to map approaches to end chronic homelessness, you could make a compelling argument about the costs associated with effective and ineffective interventions. The Family Options Study demonstrates that the cost of a long-term subsidy decreased the use of shelters by over three-quarters over 37 months. However, the study also found that providing permanent housing vouchers was more expensive than usual care by 9 percent, but did have the best outcomes.

Can research lead to policy change? Ann Marie Oliva, deputy assistant secretary for special needs at HUD, cited the strength of the study and its outcomes as further support for HUD’s fiscal year 2017 budget request of $11 billion over 10 years to end homelessness. Funding would expand rapid rehousing, which the study found to improve outcomes more modestly than vouchers but at a lower cost, and add 10,000 new housing vouchers for families experiencing homelessness. More resources are needed. Just one in four families eligible for housing vouchers receive them. Congress continues to negotiate funding levels for the current fiscal year.

“We know how to end homeless,” said Lourdes Castro Ramirez, assistant secretary for public and Indian housing. Now it is time to put our resources to programs that work.