The Family Options Study


The Family Options Study is a multi-site random assignment experiment designed to study the impact of various housing and services interventions for homeless families. HUD launched the Family Options Study in 2008 in response to Congressional direction and with the goal of learning more about the effects of different housing and services interventions for homeless families. 

Between September 2010 and January 2012, a total of 2,282 families (including over 5,000 children) were enrolled into the study from emergency shelters across twelve communities nationwide and were randomly assigned to one of four interventions: 1) subsidy-only – defined as a permanent housing subsidy with no supportive services attached, typically delivered in the form of a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV); 2) project-based transitional housing – defined as temporary housing for up to 24 months with an intensive package of supportive services offered on-site; 3) community-based rapid re-housing – defined as temporary rental assistance, potentially renewable for up to 18 months with limited, housing-focused services; or 4) usual care –  defined as any housing or services that a family accesses in the absence of immediate referral to the other interventions.

Families are being tracked for a minimum of three years, and were extensively interviewed at baseline/random assignment, 18-months after random assignment, and 36 months after random assignment. Extensive data is collected from both the head of household, as well as from children directly, through surveys or direct child and parent observations in the home. Primary outcomes of interest fall under five domains: housing stability; family preservation; adult well-being; child well-being; and self-sufficiency. In addition to family outcomes, extensive cost data was also collected in order to help contextualize the outcomes.

An interim report, released in March 2013, describes the study’s design and implementation and characteristics of the study families.  The key findings in the interim report relate to families’ enrollment in the different interventions being studied — both the barriers presented by stringent eligibility criteria of programs that often screen households out of assistance, and the choices made by households to reject the intervention offered. A subsequent report was released in July 2015 that documents the impacts of the various interventions and their relative costs at the 18-month follow-up period, and a final report in late 2017 will document the impacts of the four interventions at the 36-month follow-up period. All products generated from this study will be housed on this project page. For additional information, please contact Anne Fletcher at

Interim Report

This report presents results from the early implementation of the study of the Impact of Housing and Services Interventions for Homeless Families, referred to here as the Family Options Study. The Family Options Study is being sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to measure the relative impacts of four interventions commonly employed within local communities to help families experiencing homelessness. The study compares the impacts of: community-based rapid re-housing (CBRR), project-based transitional housing (PBTH), permanent housing subsidies (SUB), and the usual care (UC) emergency shelter system in 12 communities.

This interim report describes the baseline characteristics of the families enrolled in the study and the housing and services interventions the families were offered. The report also describes the study’s design and implementation and provides preliminary information about the extent to which families have enrolled in the assigned interventions. A subsequent document (in 2014) will report on the impacts of the four interventions and their relative costs. The impact analysis will use data collected from a survey of families 18 months after random assignment as well as administrative data measuring receipt of HUD assistance and data on returns to shelter from local Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS). The 18-month follow-up survey began in July 2012 and will continue through September 2013. The research team will also prepare a series of short issue briefs to discuss additional findings that may be relevant to policymakers, practitioners, and researchers.

Download the Interim Report

Data Collection and Analysis Plan

The objective of the Family Options Study is to provide research evidence to help federal policymakers, community planners, and local practitioners make sound decisions about the best ways to address homelessness among families. The study will compare four combinations of housing and service interventions for homeless families who have been in emergency shelters for at least seven days. The study is conducted as a rigorous, multi-site experiment, to determine what interventions work best to promote family stability and well-being. Within the limits of statistical power, the study will also analyze what types of families benefit most from each intervention. The four interventions studied are:

  • Permanent Housing Subsidy (SUB). The permanent subsidy is typically in the form of a Housing Choice Voucher, without dedicated supportive services.
  • Project-Based Transitional Housing (PBTH). This intervention features temporary housing assistance offered for up to 24 months (with average expected length of stay of 6 to 12 months) in transitional housing facilities combined with supportive services.
  • Community-Based Rapid Re-housing (CBRR). CBRR provides temporary rental assistance for 2 to 6 months (potentially renewable for periods up to 18 months) in conventional, private-market housing, with limited, housing-focused services.
  • Usual Care (UC). UC includes any additional time spent in emergency shelters and the services that people would normally access on their own from shelter in the absence of these other interventions.

Download the Data Collection and Analysis Plan

Scholarly Publications

The Family Options Study provides a unique platform to generate research findings related to family homelessness. To date, several scholarly publications have been generated based on this research effort:

Intersections of family homelessness, CPS involvement, and race in Alameda County, California.
Jason M. Rodriguez and Marybeth Shinn
Child Abuse & Neglect 57, July 2016, pp. 41-52

The homelessness and child protective services (CPS) systems are closely linked. This study examines the patterns and sequence of families’ involvement with homeless shelters and CPS, as well as whether involvement in each system predicts involvement in the other using linked administrative records for 258 families recruited in emergency shelters in Alameda County, California. More than half of families were reported to CPS at some point, but less than one-fifth ever had a report substantiated. Reports that were uninvestigated or unfounded increased in the months leading up to shelter entry and spiked immediately afterward, but substantiations and child removals increased only later. Shelter use before study entry was associated with CPS referrals and investigations after study entry, although not with substantiated cases or child removals. However, CPS involvement before study entry was not associated with returns to shelter after study entry. These results imply that an unsubstantiated report of neglect or abuse may serve as an early warning signal for homelessness and that preventive strategies aiming to affect both homeless and child protective systems should focus on reducing homelessness. CPS workers should evaluate families’ housing needs and attempt to link families to appropriate resources. Black families were disproportionately referred to CPS after shelter entry after controlling for other family characteristics, but race was not associated with substantiations of neglect or abuse or with child removals. Findings lend modest support to human decision-making and institutional explanations of racial disproportionalities in CPS involvement, especially for reporters outside of the CPS system.


A Qualitative Assessment of Parental Preschool Choices and Challenges Among Families Experiencing Homelessness: Policy and Practice Implications. Lindsey Stillman, Kate Hurd, Charles Kieffer, Jamie Taylor, Britton Gibson, The Cloudburst Group.

On a single night in 2013—as measured by the Point-In-Time count conducted by homeless services providers under the auspice of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—more than 70,000 families and 130,000 children were experiencing homelessness across the United States. Of these families, 80 percent were headed by single mothers, and 40 percent had at least one child under the age of 1 (HUD, 2013a).

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Parental preschool choices and challenges when young children and their families experience homelessness.
Jamie Taylor, Britton Gibson, and Kate Hurd
Children and Youth Services Review 56, September 2015, pp. 68-75

Encouraging stable preschool enrollment is a critically important policy response for ameliorating the negative impacts of housing instability and homelessness on young children. To contribute to the evidence base for preschool and family support policies, this article investigates how housing instability and homelessness influences parental preschool choices. Using a modified grounded theory approach to analyze transcripts of interviews and focus groups with 28 families who had experienced homelessness, we find that for formerly homeless parents, the most important factors influencing preschool enrollment are housing stability, social networks, attitudes about preschool education, history of trauma, and the type of support received during interactions with social service systems. We integrate these findings into a socio-ecological model that can guide the development of policy responses that encourage preschool enrollment among families experiencing homelessness.

Leaving Homelessness Behind: Housing Decisions Among Families Exiting Shelter. Fisher, Benjamin W.; Mayberry, Lindsay; Shinn, Marybeth; and Khadduri, Jill. 2014. Housing Policy Debate, 24(2), pp. 364-386.

Because homelessness assistance programs are designed to help families, it is important for policymakers and practitioners to understand how families experiencing homelessness make housing decisions, particularly when they decide not to use available services. This study explores those decisions using in-depth qualitative interviews with 80 families recruited in shelters across four sites approximately six months after they were assigned to one of four conditions (permanent housing subsidies, project-based transitional housing, community-based rapid re-housing, or usual care). Familiar neighborhoods near children's schools, transportation, family and friends, and stability were important to families across conditions. Program restrictions on eligibility constrained family choices. Subsidized housing was the most desired intervention, and families leased up at higher rates than in other studies of poor families. Respondents were least comfortable in and most likely to leave transitional housing. Uncertainty associated with community-based rapid re-housing generated considerable anxiety. Across interventions, many families had to make unhappy compromises, often leading to further moves. Policy recommendations are offered.

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Families experiencing housing instability: The effects of housing programs on family routines and rituals. Mayberry, L. S., Shinn, M., Benton, J. G., & Wise, J. (2014). Families experiencing housing instability: The effects of housing programs on family routines and rituals. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(1), 95-109. doi:10.1037/h0098946. Copyright © 2014 by the American Orthopsychiatric Association. Reproduced with permission.

Maintenance of family processes can protect parents, children, and families from the detrimental effects of extreme stressors, such as homelessness. When families cannot maintain routines and rituals, the stressors of poverty and homelessness can be compounded for both caregivers and children. However, characteristics of living situations common among families experiencing homelessness present barriers to the maintenance of family routines and rituals. We analyzed 80 in-depth interviews with parents who were experiencing or had recently experienced an instance of homelessness. We compared their assessments of challenges to family schedules, routines, and rituals across various living situations, including shelter, transitional housing programs, doubled-up (i.e., living temporarily with family or friends), and independent housing. Rules common across shelters and transitional housing programs impeded family processes, and parents felt surveilled and threatened with child protective service involvement in these settings. In doubled-up living situations, parents reported adapting their routines to those of the household and having parenting interrupted by opinions of friends and family members. Families used several strategies to maintain family routines and rituals in these living situations and ensure consistency and stability for their children during an otherwise unstable time.

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Short-term Outcomes Report

This report, titled Short-Term Impacts of Housing and Services Interventions for Homeless Families, presents the short-term outcomes of the families enrolled in the Family Options Study, a multi-site random assignment experiment designed to study the impact of various housing and services interventions on homeless families. The report documents how families are faring approximately 20 months after random assignment to one of four interventions: community-based rapid re-housing (CBRR), project-based transitional housing (PBTH), permanent housing subsidy (SUB), and usual care (UC). Outcome measures fall within five domains: housing stability; family preservation; adult well-being; child well-being; and self-sufficiency. The collection of extensive cost data for each of the interventions tested enables the calculation of the costs that can be tied to each of the interventions, and in turn, used to understand the cost of achieving the outcomes observed. The study resulted in strong and significant findings, particularly related to the power of offering a voucher to a homeless family. HUD anticipates releasing the “long-term” outcomes of families within the next two years, and these findings will document how families are faring a full three years after random assignment, and how the costs of the different groups of families continue to evolve.

Download the Short-term Outcomes Report

On July 8, 2015, HUD/PD&R hosted a public briefing on the short-term outcomes of the Family Options Study. Watch a recording of the webcast here, and listen to a presentation of the study findings from the research team, as well as a moderated Q&A with Federal leaders working to address homelessness.