Using TANF to Fight Family Homelessness

Feb 20, 2013

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

The first stated goal of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant is “to provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives.” However, the National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that over 1.6 million children in the U.S. are homeless at some point in the course of a year, meaning that TANF is clearly failing in this goal.  Three-fifths of homeless families do not receive cash assistance from TANF; for others, the meager TANF benefit is not enough to keep them securely housed.

Today the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers TANF at the federal level, issued a memo reminding states of the range of services for homeless families that TANF funds can help support, from emergency services to longer term supports.  ACF also  highlights a few promising examples of states and localities that are using TANF to house homeless families as soon as possible and connect them to employment and support services so they can continue to pay rent when the temporary subsidy ends.

The ACF memo did not create new policy, but simply reminded states of their options under current law.  TANF is a flexible block grant and can be used for a range of purposes.  For more details on the rules that apply, see CLASP’s Guide to Use of TANF Funds.  At this time of tight state finances and looming cuts in federal funding, there are many competing demands on TANF funds. 

The takeaway from this memo should not be that TANF is available to patch funding holes left by other cuts, but that the flexible funds available under TANF can be used in new ways that provide a family with the range of services needed to help them achieve self-sufficiency, rather than just responding in patchwork fashion to the immediately presenting need.  Such comprehensive services can help pay for themselves; in Mercer County, NJ, which implemented rapid rehousing and employment-focused services, the average length of time families stayed in emergency shelter declined from 87 days in 2010 to 57 days in 2012.  Over the same period, the average length of stay in transitional housing dropped from 253 days to 184 days, saving thousands of dollars per family.

We encourage state administrators and others involved in the implementation of TANF to read this memo and consider the variety of ways they can address the needs of homeless families.  While there are many competing demands for TANF funds, if keeping children in homes and out of homeless shelters isn’t a priority, it’s hard to imagine what is.

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