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A Briefing on the Family Options Study

A woman is playing with three children in the front yard of a house.
Permanent housing subsidies, such as housing choice vouchers, can greatly improve the housing stability of a homeless family.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been studying the effects of various services and interventions intended for homeless families. In 2008, Congress directed HUD to look at this information and analyze whether the services and interventions offered have had positive effects on families. After years of planning and observation, researchers have released the preliminary results of their study in the report Family Options Study: Short-Term Impacts of Housing and Services Interventions for Homeless Families.

On July 8, 2015, HUD hosted an event to discuss the findings of the interim report. The study’s authors presented an overview of the study, its findings, and lessons learned. Officials from HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) were also on hand to discuss the report and its implications for current and future policies and programs.

The researchers looked at three types of homeless interventions — permanent housing subsidies (such as housing choice vouchers), community-based rapid re-housing, and project-based transitional housing — and their effect on improving the lives of homeless families. The researchers compared the outcomes of these direct interventions with the outcomes of the usual care a homeless family might access on their own in an emergency shelter system, without immediate referral to other services. The main focus of the report was to see how these interventions played a role in providing stable housing for these families. However, the researchers also looked at the interventions’ impact on family preservation, adult well-being, child well-being, and self-sufficiency.

Ultimately, the researchers found that after 20 months of intervention, a permanent housing subsidy, like a voucher, had the greatest impact on improving housing stability for homeless families that received the assistance. Rapid re-housing, in contrast, did not improve housing stability compared with usual care, but the intervention did help increase family income and food security. Families receiving transitional housing assistance were able to reduce their stays in emergency shelters and on the streets, but there were no other significant effects.

Following the presentation of the study’s findings, Jennifer Ho, HUD senior advisor on housing and services, moderated a panel with HUD and USICH officials. The panel discussed how beneficial this study will be in evaluating current policies and making changes going forward. Although the panelists noted that vouchers had the biggest short-term impact on housing stability for homeless families, they cautioned that this finding should not come at the expense of investing in rapid re-housing and transitional housing programs. Communities need to put systems in place that can leverage scarce resources and help all families that need it, regardless of the type of assistance. Policymakers need to keep in mind that not all families need a permanent housing subsidy or voucher; some families need transitional housing with the appropriate wraparound services, whereas others need rapid re-housing to get off the streets quickly.

Jennifer Ho, as well as the panelists, emphasized that no single policy prescription is the answer; regardless of the study’s short-term findings, Congress still needs to fund programs that lead to a system of mixed assistance that can help all families in need. On a related note, the study has found that, although vouchers have a positive effect in maintaining housing stability for homeless families, the key is to get these vouchers into the hands of families in need, which is no easy task. A continued investment in vouchers and a coordinated strategy to get vouchers into the hands of families in need is critical. The panelists went on to note that it is essential that policymakers and stakeholders at the local, state, and federal levels use data and analysis like the information found in this study to improve strategies to end family homelessness. Officials and advocates must use sources such as the Family Options Study to evaluate what works, what doesn’t work, and then eventually improve policy and continue strategic investments.

The report’s high-level findings and cost analysis focused on family outcomes after 20 months of observation. Because this is such a short time frame, to truly get a sense of the impact of the interventions, another report will be compiled looking at long-term outcomes after 36 months. HUD anticipates releasing this long-term report in the next two years, and its findings will document how families are faring three years after the initial intervention, and how the costs of the programs evolve. This long-term report will give policymakers an additional resource to better understand ways to improve policy and achieve the administration’s goal of ending family homelessness by 2020.