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Interventions Offer Approaches To Tackling Homelessness

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Interventions Offer Approaches To Tackling Homelessness

The goal of HUD’s Family Options Study, the largest study to date of family homelessness using an experimental design, is to learn more about of the effects of housing and services interventions for homeless families. It compares several combinations of housing assistance and services in a multi-site experiment, to determine which interventions work best to promote housing stability, family preservation, child well-being, adult well-being, and self-sufficiency. This research is intended to help federal policymakers, community planners, and local practitioners determine the most appropriate strategies to address family homelessness.

The Family Options Study’s Interim Report, just released, details the baseline characteristics of the families in the study, preliminary enrollment information, and the interventions that were offered. A companion to the report, the Data Collection and Analysis Plan, details the study’s overall research design and implementation. In 2014, the findings from the outcomes analysis will describe the impact of the various interventions on participating families, as well as the corresponding costs associated with each intervention.

Randomized, Multisite Experiment

The study began in 2008 and involves 12 communities across the country.1 Families with at least one child age 15 or under who had stayed in an emergency shelter for at least 7 days were invited to enroll in the study. A total of 2,307 families enrolled between 2010 and early 2012. Enrolled families were randomly assigned to one of four interventions, provided that they met the intervention program’s eligibility requirements and that the intervention was available in their community.

A review of the characteristics of the study families confirms that the study population is very similar to those of sheltered homeless families in general, as described in HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR). At baseline, the typical family in the study included an adult female and 1 to 2 children under age 15. Almost two-thirds of the sample had previously experienced homelessness, and 85 percent of adults had “doubled up” with friends, relatives, or other families at some point in the past because they could not afford a place of their own. Many of the families reported receiving benefits from other public programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (88%) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (41%). Families experienced barriers to housing such as never before holding a lease (35%) and psychological distress (22%). These baseline characteristics will be instrumental in determining the interventions’ effects on homeless families’ outcomes.

Varying Levels of Housing Assistance and Supportive Services

The four interventions being tested — community-based rapid re-housing (CBRR), project-based transitional housing (PBTH), subsidy- only (SUB), and usual care (UC) — represent different approaches to moving families out of homelessness. The interventions differed from each other by expected length of stay, housing setting, subsidy structure, and services offered. The median expected length of housing assistance varies greatly by program: 30 to 90 days for UC, 4 to 6 months for CBRR, 13 to 18 months for PBTH, and indefinitely for SUB. Families enrolled in CBRR and SUB receive assistance in renting private-market housing. PBTH provides time-limited housing in a project-based setting. Those receiving UC received the assistance that homeless households would normally access on their own from shelter in the absence of the study, and could include referrals to CBRR or PBTH programs. The SUB intervention typically offered assistance in the form of a Housing Choice Voucher.

The provision of services varies across the interventions, as well. The SUB intervention included no supportive services, and only the limited services related to housing placement that are broadly available to all voucher program participants. CBRR, PBTH, and UC all include a case management component. PBTH programs typically include a more intensive array of supportive services, often offered onsite, and CBRR programs offer a more limited set of services primarily designed to assist the household in maintaining the housing.

Take-Up, Tracking, and Next Steps

Key findings at this stage of the study 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. The full set of 2,307 households will be tracked during the follow-up period of the study, regardless of whether the family accessed their assigned intervention. A full eighteen months after random assignment, each family will be administered an 18-month follow-up survey to assess changes in housing stability, family preservation, child well-being, adult well-being, and self-sufficiency. The impact analysis of the alternative interventions on homeless family outcomes will be available in 2014.

Table 1. Status of Families Assigned to Study Interventions

Assigned Intervention Take-Up Rate Screened Out/Found Ineligible Family declined Intervention Status Unknown
CBRR 46% 9% 28% 17%
SUB 72% 11% 10% 7%
PBTH 29% 16% 43% 12%
UC 100% -- -- --

Note: All families assigned to UC were considered to have taken-up the intervention, as they were all in emergency shelters at the time of enrollment into the study.
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Interim Report, Exhibits 52-54.

Although the Interim Report does not have data on specific intervention impacts, the study provides important insights into the structure of the homeless assistance system overall, and the extent to which the system is designed, or not designed, to serve the families that seek assistance. The study found resources dedicated to homelessness are often inflexible and constrained, making it difficult to adjust to fluctuations in demand for assistance. In addition, the process of randomly assigning families to different interventions highlighted the myriad of eligibility criteria that often screened out households with greater challenges. Paradoxically, the programs with the most stringent eligibility criteria (project-based transitional housing) were also the most service-intensive programs, and often screened out the families with the highest needs, the very families that may have been best served by the program model. Finally, this early phase of the study allows us to consider which families ultimately enrolled into the interventions to which they were assigned. The enrollment rates, shown in Table 1, were affected both by the eligibility criteria of various programs, as well as the desirability of each of the interventions families were offered. The material presented in the interim report provides a valuable contribution to ongoing discussions regarding strategies to address family homelessness.