Family Options Study Challenges Us to Do More to End Family Homelessness

We were all given an important opportunity last week to deepen our conversations and strengthen our efforts to end family homelessness when our partners at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released findings from the Family Options Study. The study compares the outcomes of families experiencing homelessness assigned to three different interventions with the outcomes for families who were assigned to “usual care,” defined as any housing or services that a family accesses in the absence of immediate referral to the other interventions. The three types of interventions examined in comparison to usual care were:

  • Permanent housing subsidy (usually a Housing Choice Voucher)
  • Community-based rapid re-housing
  • Project-based transitional housing

The study attempts to answer the question of whether priority access to these interventions improves the housing stability, economic outcomes, and well-being of the families. Between 2010 and 2012, more than two thousand families in 12 different communities were randomly assigned to an intervention. The report compares the families’ outcomes at 18 months from assignment, as well as the relative cost of the interventions. A future report will describe the study’s findings at 36 months from assignment.

This study is ambitious and complex, and there are many findings, some of which are nuanced. I encourage you to read the full report and to talk and think about what it means for ending homelessness in your community. I am still thinking about some of the implications myself, and discussing with our partners, but the findings reinforce for me the importance of strategies on which USICH and our Federal partners have already been focused: 

We need more affordable housing in this country, period. Families in the study assigned to receive permanent housing subsides didn’t just achieve higher rates of housing stability, they also experienced greater improvements in well-being for both the adults and children, lower rates of child separation, and higher child school attendance. We must invest in affordable housing across all levels of government, including the President’s FY 2016 Budget, which would restore 67,000 Housing Choice Vouchers, invest in the National Housing Trust Fund, and provide funding for affordable housing programs like HOME. We must also continue to expand our partnerships with public housing authorities, affordable housing developers and owners, and state housing finance agencies, so that we can prioritize families and individuals experiencing homelessness and target mainstream affordable housing resources to efforts to end homelessness.

We need to continue to strengthen and invest in crisis response systems that can quickly connect families to housing and services interventions: Given the current deficit of affordable housing in many communities, our efforts to link people to the housing and services available to them through local homelessness services systems need to become more efficient. Notably, families in the study who were assigned to a rental subsidy received it fairly quickly and directly, while families assigned to receive transitional housing or rapid re-housing did not access that assistance quickly or directly. Many families who were assigned to rapid re-housing or transitional housing never received those interventions or were also given other interventions for which they had not been prioritized. This tells me that the work in communities to develop coordinated entry systems, so that the path to help for families experiencing homelessness does not remain a confusing maze, could not be more important.

We need to continue to improve the quality of all interventions within our systems, including rapid re-housing: I believe the study’s findings challenge us to look closely at the outcomes being achieved through transitional housing and rapid re-housing interventions, and also at how well programs are being deployed and implemented. I know that rapid re-housing remains an evolving practice, and as agencies have become more experienced at its implementation, many communities are reporting strong outcomes in helping families who have less intensive service needs exit homelessness quickly and remain stably housed. We must continue to learn from the programs that are proving most effective, and apply those lessons more widely, especially because, as the study also documented, rapid re-housing is a less costly form of crisis response than alternatives like shelter and transitional housing. We must also strengthen the connections between rapid re-housing programs, community-based services, and mainstream public systems that provide access to a fuller array of services and opportunities, including employment, child care, and health and behavioral health services. We have seen such connections work well in successful programs, like Hennepin County’s Rapid Exit program and the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. 

No one study will ever equip us with all the answers, but I am looking forward to thinking and talking with colleagues and partners about the Family Options Study, and to the report on the 36-month outcomes. Such research provides invaluable chances for us all to sharpen our strategies and make the course corrections needed to end family homelessness - and to end all homelessness.

Watch the webcast of the briefing on the study.

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