In Los Angeles, the number of homeless families increased by 21 percent between 2010 and 2013. Boston saw a 23 percent increase. The number of homeless families in San Diego more than tripled between 2010 and 2013.
For the last year-plus, HUD has been studying which interventions used to fight this troubling trend might be most effective in terms of housing stability, family preservation, adult wellbeing, child wellbeing and self-sufficiency.
Twenty months in, according to the federal agency’s report released yesterday, housing vouchers have been a more effective means of reducing homelessness than rapid re-housing, an intervention that has gained support and steam in recent years. The report did note that there’s an identical and critical principal behind both interventions: housing first, social services later.
The Family Options Study enrolled 2,282 families from emergency shelters in 12 cities nationwide, randomly offering them one of four interventions: 1) housing vouchers, which provide indefinite rental assistance; 2) rapid re-housing, which provides a temporary rental subsidy and limited social services; 3) transitional housing, which combines temporary housing with supportive services for up to two years; or 4) usual care, the combination of emergency shelter, temporary housing and social services that homeless families typically access.
HUD says that families who received housing vouchers showed the greatest increases in nearly every measure of housing stability: increased food stability, decreased school absences, psychological distress and substance abuse. Partner violence was nearly halved in these families compared to those accessing usual services. Costs did not differ significantly from other interventions.
Families enrolled in rapid re-housing also saw positive outcomes like increased food security and family income, but rapid re-housing did not affect subsequent stays in shelters. The rapid re-housing families returned to emergency shelters at a rate comparable to families given no special services.
One reason for this difference is the temporary nature of rapid re-housing assistance. In theory, this approach incentivizes families to find work. And indeed rapid re-housing families saw the greatest increases in income of any groups in the study. Families who received housing vouchers, by contrast, experienced a reduction in work effort.
Of the HUD report, Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told the AP that comparing the voucher program to the other interventions may not be fair. She said that as a long-term solution, the voucher program should be classified differently. The other options are crisis interventions, short-term solutions to homelessness. In fact, outside of this study, housing vouchers are not typically available to families at the moment they become homeless, but only after time spent on a waiting list.
Roman does agree that the voucher program is the most effective solution, but says it is more expensive than the HUD report suggests. Jennifer Ho, a HUD senior advisor on housing and services, said that the voucher program does cost more than other interventions, but its long-term efficacy is what matters.
One of the study’s most surprising findings was that the additional supportive services linked to transitional housing had no significant positive impact on family self-sufficiency or adult wellbeing. Proponents of transitional housing emphasize that barriers like health, lack of education and job skills must be addressed alongside housing issues, with case managers and supportive services laying the groundwork for later independence.
But families who received transitional housing through the HUD study saw few positive impacts besides housing stability. There was no measurable increase in eight indicators of wellbeing. Transitional housing also came at the second highest average monthly cost, at $2,700, after usual care at $4,800. Housing vouchers had an average monthly cost of $1,200, compared to rapid re-housing, at $900.
When the study took into account that nearly every family in the study, regardless of which intervention they were assigned, ultimately took advantage of an array of services during the study period, costs were more even. Families enrolled in transitional housing still had the highest costs over the 20-month period, but housing voucher and usual care families both accessed approximately $30,000 worth of services. That was only slightly higher than rapid re-housing families, who accessed just over $29,000 worth of services, more than half in the form of emergency shelter.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.