What Can Welfare Agencies Do to Help Us End Homelessness?

written by Sharon McDonald
July 3, 2014

Mary and her two children became homeless not long after Mary lost her job and they were evicted from her home.  She stayed with her sister for a few weeks, but that arrangement didn’t last, and she was forced to look for shelter.

After two months, escaping homelessness seemed insurmountable to Mary. First, she would have to find a job, and then she would have to save up the money needed for a security deposit and first month’s rent. Once she did that, she would have to find a decent, safe place to live and a landlord who would be willing to overlook her previous eviction. She would have to do all of that while living in the chaotic environment of an overcrowded shelter program alongside many other families trying to do the exact same thing. 

While she was living in the emergency shelter, Mary lost the cash assistance she began receiving from the welfare agency after losing her job. She found it too difficult to meet the rules of the program which were intended to help her achieve greater self-sufficiency. Life in the shelter made it challenging to participate in 20 hours of work activity each week that the welfare agency required. When she could, when she had someone reliable to watch her children, she continued her hunt for work, but the process was slow and even more challenging than when she was able to stay with her sister.

What if it were different? 

We know that homeless service systems are changing how they provide assistance to people like Mary and her children. Homeless service programs are increasingly adopting rapid re-housing strategies: providing upfront assistance with housing search/landlord negotiation, time-limited rental assistance, and services tailored to help people move quickly out of homelessness and back into housing of their own. This is reducing the amount of time that people like Mary spend homeless. And, of course, we're seeing that it works. Families who are rapidly re-housed stay housed. 

Could welfare agencies also change how they work with people like Mary? Increasingly, they are. Utah, Idaho, and Washington are among the states using welfare resources, through the provision of financial assistance and/or supportive services, to help families like Mary's quickly escape homelessness with rapid re-housing.

One notable new effort is the new Family Stabilization Program in California. This new program provides nearly $11 million that can be used by county welfare offices to provide financial assistance, intensive case management, and other services to help families on welfare overcome barriers to employment and achieve stability.

The underlying program philosophy is quite simple: families that lack stability due to issues such as domestic violence, homelessness, or untreated mental health or substance abuse disabilities, require more support before they can make effective use of employment services that welfare agencies offer. For families who are homeless, it may require housing.

Under the Family Stabilization Program, county welfare agencies can choose to provide families experiencing homelessness with the help they need to get out of shelter including through the use of rapid re-housing. When families achieve stability in their new home, they are expected to participate fully in work activities and focus on finding employment so they can sustain that housing.

It just makes sense. Shouldn’t all states be doing this?


California Family Stabilization Plan