What Helps Families Who Are Experiencing Homelessness?

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Three-year Findings from Major Study Led by Abt Associates Show Vouchers to Be the Most Effective Strategy to Help Families Who are Experiencing Homelessness

How do we best help families experiencing homelessness, and how do we keep them from becoming homeless again? Three-year findings from a major study released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Abt Associates show that long-term housing subsidies, particularly housing vouchers, are the best strategy.

Providing priority access to long-term housing subsidies to homeless families helps keep families from becoming homeless again and has a variety of positive benefits – from keeping families out of shelters and off the street, to preventing food insecurity and intimate partner violence and reducing school moves for children in homeless families.

From September 2010 through January 2012, 2,282 families with 5,397 children enrolled in the Family Options Study across 12 communities after spending at least seven days in emergency shelter. Researchers from Abt Associates and Vanderbilt University followed the families for 37 months, gathering evidence about which types of housing and services interventions worked best for homeless families. Participating communities were Alameda County, Calif.; Atlanta; Baltimore; Boston; Bridgeport and New Haven , Conn.; Denver; Honolulu; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; Minneapolis; Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

The random-assignment study compared the effect of offering families long-term housing subsidies with the effect of offering transitional housing, which places people in agency-controlled buildings or apartments with intensive services, and with the effect of offering rapid re-housing, which provides short-term subsidies to help families lease market-rate housing. Researchers looked at these efforts compared to one another and to usual care, when families are not given priority access to any particular type of assistance.

“The Family Options Study shows a striking pattern of findings after three years, similar to the findings detected in a shorter, 20-month period,” said Michelle Wood, one of the study’s authors and a Principal Associate at Abt Associates. “Providing access to long-term subsidies keeps families off the street and out of shelters. The evidence underscores that homelessness is a challenge of housing affordability that it can be remedied with long-term housing subsidies.”

The three–year results show that long-term housing subsidies had substantial positive impacts on family well-being, reducing by one-half the proportion of families experiencing recent homelessness. Compared to usual care, access to long-term housing subsidies reduced the proportion of families who stay in emergency shelter again by more than half in the first 20 months and by more than three-quarters in the final year studied. Long-term housing subsidies also had positive impacts on adult and child-well being. For example, compared to families assigned to usual care, families given priority access to long-term subsidies experienced less food insecurity and less intimate partner violence. Children in families given priority access to long-term subsidies moved among schools less frequently and families had fewer moves. Employment of adults in the long-term subsidy group was somewhat lower than for the usual care group over much of the follow-up period.

The study found that transitional housing had no effect on the family challenges that may contribute to homelessness and that transitional housing is intended to address through intensive services directly linked to a short-term stay in an agency-controlled project. Over three years of study, priority access to project-based transitional housing had no effect on adult well-being or self-sufficiency and only reduced stays in emergency shelter during a period when some families were still in transitional housing programs.

The study found that priority access to rapid re-housing did not improve on usual care in reducing returns to homelessness, but rapid rehousing cost less both per month and over the three-year follow-up period. When the costs of all programs used are considered, costs were 9 percent lower for families with priority access to rapid re-housing than for usual care families.

In the three years studied, the average total cost of all the programs used by families assigned to usual care averaged $41,000 per family. The corresponding cost for families given priority access to long-term permanent subsidies was 9 percent higher. The benefits of priority access to a long-term subsidy were achieved at a three-year additional cost of about $4,000.    

With HUD support, Abt is continuing to track this sample of deeply poor families with histories of homelessness.

For a full copy of the report, visit: https://www.huduser.gov/portal/family_options_study.html.

About Abt Associates
Abt Associates is a mission-driven, global leader in research, evaluation and program implementation in the fields of health, social and environmental policy, and international development. Known for its rigorous approach to solving complex challenges, Abt Associates is regularly ranked as one of the top 20 global research firms and one of the top 40 international development innovators. The company has multiple offices in the U.S. and program offices in more than 60 countries. http://www.abtassociates.com

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Amy Dunaway
(301) 347-5056
Amy_Dunaway(at)abtassoc(dot)com

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