TANF at 20: Improvement needed for homeless families

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and so journalists, researchers, policymakers and advocacy organizations are weighing in: Did it work? How can it work better?

People may disagree on how to improve welfare assistance, but hopefully no one disagrees that investments in assisting needy families must embrace steps to end and prevent homelessness among children. Housing is fundamental to self-sufficiency and helping families access and retain stable housing should be a focus of the work of TANF agencies.

Here’s how the Alliance thinks welfare assistance can be improved for these families.

All low-income families with children experiencing homelessness or a housing crisis should be able to turn to the welfare agency to access immediate help.

More than 160,000 families turn to emergency shelters and other homeless service organizations each year. Less than half are receiving assistance from the welfare agency when they do so. Why is that? It may be because there are hurdles to apply for assistance. Families may have applied and are waiting 30-45 days for cash assistance benefits to be issued. It may be that the family once received TANF assistance but lost it due to time limits or sanctions.

Families in crisis should have immediate help from TANF agencies to resolve their housing crisis. TANF agencies can more effectively respond by expediting applications for, and receipt of, cash assistance for families experiencing homelessness or a housing crisis. TANF agencies can set up policies to ensure families facing sanctions or time limits will not also face homelessness and work to restore cash assistance to families that do become homeless. State and local agencies can also update and improve investments in emergency assistance so those resources are more accessible and effective in preventing homelessness when families are facing housing loss and homelessness.
TANF agencies should work in concert with local homeless service providers and be primary partners in ending homelessness for families and children.

Most families who exit homelessness will not receive a housing subsidy, meaning they have to find housing that they can afford with their own limited means. This often means families end up spending far more than 50 percent of their income for rent, doubling up and/or living in seriously substandard or overcrowded conditions.

Not receiving a housing subsidy can often mean that families spend months in shelter while looking for employment or housing at a significant toll to children and families. (Note: This is a situation that rapid re-housing seeks to remedy through mobilizing the package of assistance to help families transition quickly back into housing).

State and local TANF agencies can deploy resources to help homeless families connect to cash assistance and employment supports, such as childcare and transportation assistance, quickly. TANF agencies can prioritize the delivery of employment services to families experiencing or at risk of homelessness. TANF agencies can also support rapid re-housing interventions and work in close partnership with homeless service organizations to ensure that the resources of both systems are effectively coordinated so families are quickly connected to both housing and employment. Finally, states can ensure that cash assistance levels more closely align with the cost of housing families need.
Welfare agencies should work to reduce the risk of housing loss and homelessness among their own participants and other poor families in the target jurisdiction.

Many of the families TANF agencies currently serve are already homeless or may become so shortly. An early longitudinal study of welfare recipients in Wisconsin found that nearly a quarter of families receiving welfare experienced a literal homeless episode and almost half doubled up within three years. A more recent study in Washington State found risk of homelessness was particularly high among the small subset of families that lost access to welfare due to time limits.

TANF agencies can adopt policies to regularly assess the housing stability and needs of their program participants to prevent them from becoming homeless. Families deemed at heightened risk may receive more intensive services to help them stabilize. Assessments may be conducted before the implementation of time limits or sanctions to ensure those actions do not jeopardize families’ housing. In depth assessments may be conducted with families who are long-term welfare recipients to make sure that the program services that are being offered are well-suited to meet their self-sufficiency needs.

Moving Forward

In just a few short months, a new Administration will take the helm and it is unclear whether attention to poverty or improving welfare will be among the top priorities. Fortunately, there are action steps that states and localities can embark on today to improve their response to family homelessness.
The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) released an Information Memorandum in 2013 outlining how agencies can use TANF resources to assist families experiencing homelessness. This year, ACF released a guide outlining how welfare agencies may improve screening for families with severe housing needs and how to improve coordination with homeless service systems. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has also outlined actions that states and localities can adopt to make more effective use of TANF assistance to end family homelessness which was informed by the innovative strategies many communities have adopted.
We should call on the next Congress and President to improve welfare so it can improve the lives of poor children and families. But we do not have to wait. Action can be taken now to improve local and state responses to child and family homelessness. Improving welfare assistance to our communities’ most vulnerable children is a responsibility we must all embrace and we should start today.