Priority Housing Vouchers Best Intervention for Homeless Families

In January 2015, over 200,000 U.S. families experienced homelessness—staying in public shelters, sleeping in cars, or doubling up with family or friends. Young children are particularly vulnerable; more than 150,000 (half of them under age six) stay in shelters each year. Indeed, research shows that people are most likely to be homeless during their first year of life. For these kids and their parents, being without a home destabilizes every part of their lives.

Family homelessness is primarily driven by the high cost of housing. Workers earning minimum wage can’t afford a modest two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. That makes effective, accessible housing assistance critical to help low-income families stabilize.

According to a three-year study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, priority access to long-term housing subsidies provides more significant benefits to homeless families than “usual care,” which refers to emergency shelter, housing, and other services for which families aren’t  prioritized. Among the families studied, long-term housing subsidies reduced homelessness by 50 percent as well as mitigated negative outcomes. These include the proportion of parents who were separated from their children, psychological distress among heads of household, children’s behavioral problems, and evidence of alcohol and drug problems. Long-term subsidies also increased the portion of people living on their own by 15 percentage points. While this approach is slightly more expensive than “usual care,” it yields greater benefits without need for additional services.

Due to limited funding, just-one quarter of low-income families eligible for housing assistance actually receive help. Yet the Department’s study provides clear evidence that the right interventions, namely long-term subsidies, can prevent and end homelessness and promote outcomes beyond housing. When parents and kids have a place of their own to lay their heads, they have a foundation to improve other parts of their lives.