Recently the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released the last set of findings from the Family Options Study, which reveals the 3-year impact of housing and service interventions for homeless families.

Ecology house in hands

HUD asserts that the findings prove that long-term housing assistance vouchers are the most effective way to reduce homelessness and improve outcomes for children and families.

Yet serious questions have been raised about the methodology of this study, including the failure of the study to evaluate service interventions with the same rigor as housing interventions – and specifically, to evaluate the nature, duration, and intensity of the services provided.

Even prior to the intermediate findings, the premise underlying the study – that family homelessness is primarily caused by housing affordability – has been used as justification for a re-haul of federal homelessness assistance. Over the past few years, HUD has nearly eliminated support for transitional housing and services that support families, and instead forced communities to use HUD homeless assistance for permanent housing programs, mostly targeted to single adults.

The Family Options study also is being used to set the stage for a national strategy for the next Congress. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration released an $11 billion request for mandatory funding over 10 years for housing assistance, primarily through Housing Choice Vouchers. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and others are laying the groundwork to push this proposal forward in the next Administration and Congress. The Administration’s proposal includes no funding or plan for services, despite the fact that without services, families are often unable able to keep their housing.

Homelessness is both a symptom and cause of trauma for children and families. The experience of homelessness in any form is traumatic for a child. Homelessness causes instability in a child’s life, resulting in multiple moves and overcrowded living situations. Too often, homelessness puts children directly at-risk of physical harm and abuse. Families often become homeless due to traumatic experiences such as job loss, substance abuse, mental health issues, and domestic violence. Housing alone cannot address all of the underlying contributing causes of homelessness, nor respond to all of the harm caused by homelessness.

Any interventions to reduce family homelessness must couple services for children and parents with housing assistance. Early care and learning, adult education, employment assistance, and mental health services must go hand-in-hand with housing if families are to stay housed, and children are to recover from the trauma and disruption of homelessness. The number of young children experiencing homelessness in Head Start has nearly doubled since 2007.  These children are undergoing critical stages of development while homeless, and it is critical that they received tailored services to meet their unique developmental needs. These services must also be truly accessible for families that lack access to transportation or missing proper documentation.

This means that any interventions be designed and implemented in true partnership between housing agencies, homeless service providers, and education, early childhood, and other systems who understand the trauma and complex barriers faced by homeless children and their families.  These systems interact with homeless families on a daily basis, and are critical to identifying the homeless children and families in a community with the most acute needs.

We need a national strategy to address the true nature of family homelessness, built around a two-generation approach that includes policies to meet the specific and unique needs of children and youth as well as parents.  An example of a step in the right direction is the recent joint policy statement released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education, and HUD, which provides research and recommendations on how early childhood and housing providers can collaborate to provide safe and stable environments for pregnant women and families with young children.

In order to truly reduce family homelessness in the U.S., we must acknowledge that family homelessness is a complex problem in need of solutions that go beyond housing assistance. Without a holistic solution, families will find themselves unable to maintain stable housing and find themselves homeless once again, thereby generating future cycles of family homelessness and poverty for the foreseeable future.

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