Stabilizing Children: The Intersecting Roles of People, Place, and Housing

by Mary Bogle, senior research associate, Urban Institute

Children typically thrive when they are surrounded by positive and predictable routines, places, and people. Abrupt, involuntary, or negative changes in individual, family, or community circumstances can threaten the basics children need for healthy development, such as a sense of security, strong relationships with loving adults, a stable and safe environment, and access to consistent resources such as food, housing, education, and health care.

Because instability cuts across so many domains, scant research exists on its dominant causes, consequences, and solutions. This is why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently funded a team of researchers at the Urban Institute to complete an initial scan across domains to develop insights for research, policy, and practice on how to foster stability and ameliorate the consequences of instability for children.

Though we are still early in this research, a few insights have emerged about how better connections between social networks, neighborhoods, housing, and institutions such as schools might stabilize children’s lives.

We need a better understanding of how social networks and local communities can also be a safety net for families alongside traditional public benefit programs such as food stamps, housing subsidies, and temporary cash transfers. Across all income strata, most Americans point to family and friends as their most expected source of support in hard times, and low-income families are less likely to enter into hardship if they have strong social networks. Though a family and community safety net operates differently than a public one, both offer a buffer against life’s inevitable vicissitudes.

The neighborhoods we live in confer important tangible advantages for children. But for families who live in chronically disadvantaged neighborhoods, place is often detrimental to a child’s consistent well-being, and education and can hurt the adults around them because of a lack of access to crucial resources, such as housing and employment.

Likewise, housing instability has consequences for educational achievement and other child outcomes. Without the security housing offers, a family and child’s experience of stress is pervasive and too often traumatizing. Just the stress of maintaining housing can be destabilizing. Even middle-class families often experience repeated setbacks and challenges related to maintaining monthly rent and mortgage payments. Many low-income women and single mothers experience eviction as a common occurrence, which leads to substantial barriers in sustaining stable housing. Recent research affirms the benefits of housing stability for lower-income families. For children whose families receive housing subsidies, longer stints in subsidized housing can lead to lower incarceration rates and higher pay as adults.

Cross-sector strategies emerge in Boston

A great example of the creative cross-domain thinking needed to address child instability is going on in Boston. The Boston Promise Initiative (BPI) has joined forces with Project Hope, a multiservice nonprofit, to launch No Child Goes Homeless in three partner schools within the Dudley Village Campus, the BPI target neighborhood. This new alliance aims to address housing instability for students before they have become homeless or been forced to move away from the school. Though the partners don’t yet know how many students are unstably housed, the project is already working with almost 9 percent of the 1,400 children enrolled in the target schools.

Here is how No Child Goes Homeless works: BPI is the nexus for assembling data, starting with data on early warning signals, such as spotty attendance, health, or behavioral issues. Project Hope collects this student information from teachers, guidance counselors, and case managers. The data are integrated with school data on achievement, family composition, and mobility to flag students at risk of homelessness. Using BPI as the conduit, case managers from Project Hope can securely share and analyze individual-level data about at-risk students with Boston Public Schools officials.

Other partners play a role and benefit from the shared data. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), BPI’s umbrella organization that has a long and august history of doing housing and organizing work in the Dudley Village Campus, develops and implements eviction- and foreclosure-prevention strategies for families and increases the stock of affordable housing in the neighborhood through such vehicles as community land trusts.

In fiscal year 2016, No Child Goes Homeless worked with 125 students to provide social and logistical support in addressing the challenges of housing instability. Case managers are watching for newly at-risk students to join the program. BPI partners expect their new alliance to significantly lower residential instability for these students, and they want to increase attendance for at least 75 percent of students whose families become permanently housed in the 2016–17 school year.

BPI’s local impact could have a broader reach. Public-sector leaders in Boston recently asked Project Hope and DSNI to shape and potentially participate in a pilot to demonstrate the effectiveness of further cross-sector collaboration to reduce student residential instability. The hope is to eventually replicate the pilot across the city.

No Child Goes Homeless could offer lessons on the power of “silo busting” for other cities. Often, the domains of school and home are connected only through parent involvement in the schools. By helping schools claim a direct educational stake in the ongoing stability of their students’ housing, the project is breaking new ground. The lessons learned could inform dynamic new alliances among families, housing authorities, school systems, and community-based nonprofits.

This new research on instability could produce important insights beyond children’s educational outcomes. Instability or the fear of instability is a widely shared experience for many Americans, rich and poor, urban and rural. A growing share of Americans are facing economic insecurity, and fewer children have not been touched by abrupt or unwanted changes, such as ill health, divorce, or weather perils. Perhaps more discussion and understanding of how instability is a shared experience will foster greater empathy and understanding among all of us, especially needed now, when we seem more divided than ever.


This post draws upon recent research on childhood instability from the Urban Institute. The research brief can be found here, and a series of posts exploring the implications can be found on Urban Wire, the blog for the Urban Institute.