Invest in Housing, Reduce Family Homelessness

State-level data indicates that family homelessness – families living in shelter, transitional housing, or without any shelter – declined sharply across the country between 2013-2018.  This might lead one to conclude that homeless service providers are serving fewer families. This is not the case.   

This post will address what’s driving these declines, how the homeless services sector is responding, and what state leaders can do to extend this progress to even more families.

State Reductions in Family Homelessness

Over a five-year period, between 2013 and 2018, the number of families experiencing homelessness on any given day declined by 21 percent nationally. Half of the states reported declines of one-third or more.    

Data from states that have released statewide 2019 point-in-time data indicates that there is reason to be optimistic that the downward trajectory will continue. According to the Alliance’s analysis of publicly available data, family homelessness declined between 2013-2019 by:  

  • 17% in District of Columbia
  • 21% in Washington
  • 36% in Connecticut and Utah
  • 40% in Maryland
  • 50% in New Jersey

What explains these reductions when the housing market remains so very challenging? While a strong economy may be one factor, we cannot discount the transformation in how homeless assistance programs respond to family homelessness.

Homeless Service Organizations are Helping More Families in Permanent Housing

In 2013, homeless service providers had few tools to reconnect families to housing. The focus was primarily on providing people temporary places to stay. Only a small number of families received dedicated assistance to reconnect to permanent housing.

Today, the landscape is different. Homeless service providers are assisting as many as 68,000 formerly homeless families in their own permanent housing on any given day. New resources to re-house families quickly, primarily through expansion of rapid re-housing, is driving reductions in family homelessness. More families experiencing homelessness than ever before receive dedicated assistance to find housing, pay for housing, and stabilize in housing with rapid re-housing support. 

More Help is Needed  

While rapid re-housing is reducing family homelessness, there is far more to do. An analysis of 2017 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) data indicates that homeless service systems have dedicated resources to re-house approximately one-third of all families that become homeless annually.

As a result, homeless service providers must triage interventions for families and most families will not receive dedicated housing support to exit homelessness.  

This challenge is compounded by the continuing vast disparity between what low income families earn and the cost of housing. The ongoing affordable housing crisis means that many families pay far more than 30 percent of their income for housing or must double up with other households. The affordable housing crisis also makes it very difficult for families to find housing they can afford, making it that much harder for families to escape homelessness.

Homeless service providers are doing their part.  They are successfully reconnecting families to housing, but they face enormous external pressures. Difficult housing markets are putting more families at risk of entering homelessness and those same housing markets are making it more challenging to help families exit.

Three Things States Can Do

  1. Federal resources, including HUD Homeless Assistance Program Grants and Housing Choice Vouchers, are critical tools to combat family homelessness. State leaders should advocate for significant increases in both accounts as well as increased overall federal funding in affordable housing.
  1. State leaders can also assess how to use their own public resources. States have used Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) alongside HUD Homeless Assistance Program resources to expand rapid re-housing for eligible families. TANF can be used to provide short-term rental assistance, housing search and housing stabilization case management.  In short, TANF resources can be used to fund each of the core components of rapid re-housing. 

    More traditional TANF functions, such as employment services, child care, transportation services, and case management services, can also be coordinated with local homeless service programs so that the resources of both systems are working together to help end families’ homelessness and help them achieve greater economic self-sufficiency.

  1. States can also expand their own investment in affordable housing and ensure those resources are targeting families most likely to become, or remain, homeless. Some localities intentionally reserve Housing Trust Funds or Housing Choice Vouchers for families experiencing homelessness with the greatest challenges who will require permanent supportive housing to exit homelessness. Other resources, such as Community Services Block Grant funds administered by Community Action Agencies, can be used to help prevent families from becoming homeless through supporting homeless diversion interventions.

Family homelessness is declining, and it is declining despite very difficult housing markets. Sustained progress requires greater investment and the help of state and local partners to target resources. States can and should explore how their resources can be deployed to help some of the states’ most vulnerable children and families avoid and escape homelessness.