Ending Family Homelessness: National Trends and Local System Responses


Report | December 11, 2012

Files: Ending Family Homelessness: National Trends and Local System Responses (PDF | 1.39 MB | 43 pages)

This is an excerpt from the document, which was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. To download the full document, please use the link above.

Ending Family Homelessness: National Trends and Local System Responses

Executive Summary

This paper is designed to provide stakeholders in the Homeless Families Initiative with information on national trends that are suggesting significant changes in the country’s approach to ending family homelessness and guidance for responding to these changes by creating well-designed local systems.

Part one of this paper is based on a literature review and analysis of national research on the characteristics of homeless families, typologies of homeless families, and the components of a coordinated system. Part two provides a framework for determining the right balance of interventions in Washington’s Pierce, King and Snohomish Counties and examines potential changes to the use of existing resources.

National Trends

Typologies of homeless families indicate that most families have relatively brief episodes of homelessness-- they exit homelessness within three to six months and do not return. Approximately one in five families have a lengthy stay in transitional housing and typically receive a rich array of services as well as a housing subsidy lasting up to two years. Families with short- and long-term stays in homeless service programs have a myriad of challenges, but they are similar to the challenges many other low income families face who never become homeless. A small subset of families experiences multiple episodes of homelessness. This group of families has the most indicators of intensive service needs and requires more assistance than homeless service programs typically provide to achieve housing stability.

Typologies of homeless families suggest a deep mismatch in how homeless service resources are being used. Highest-cost interventions are going to a small subset of families in transitional housing while minimal help is provided to all other families, including the subset with the greatest needs. Homeless service systems can be redesigned to more effectively and efficiently use homeless service resources to help all families experiencing homelessness.

Rapid re-housing programs provide housing search assistance, some upfront rental assistance, and transitional case management to families often at a fraction of the cost of lengthy shelter and transitional housing stays. Rapid re-housing has shown great promise in helping families successfully transition out of homelessness with the vast majority (85 percent or more) avoiding a subsequent homeless episode. It also improves the efficiency of homeless service systems and facilitates access to emergency shelter and long-term supportive housing programs for those who really need them.

Rapid re-housing programs can be expanded to help 80-85 percent of families exit homelessness faster. This upfront assistance will help families who already have relatively short homeless episodes get back into housing even faster. Most of the families currently targeted to receive transitional housing can be more effectively helped with rapid re-housing assistance. By reducing reliance on this expensive intervention, communities can generate savings that can be reallocated to house a larger number of families. Communities can also narrowly target service-rich interventions, such as transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, to the subset of families with more complex needs who require intensive and ongoing support to exit homelessness. Communities that have made this shift have demonstrated promising results. The Administration and Congress have recognized these communities’ success in reducing homelessness. Federal policy now promotes the strategic use of federal resources to end homelessness and provide local communities with the tools they require to rapidly re-house families.

Local Responses

The primary intervention currently used to address family homelessness in Washington’s Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties is transitional housing. As stakeholders in the tri-county Homeless Families Initiative decide how to respond to this national shift, two key questions must be addressed:

  • How can the tri-county region approach its overall system design more strategically?
  • Can existing resources be realigned to increase rapid re-housing and support a more efficient mix of system interventions?

Increasing rapid re-housing in the tri-county region will require conversion of transitional housing projects to alternative interventions and/or outcomes. These changes will have considerable implications for families, providers, and funders that must be clearly identified and addressed, especially as they relate to resource allocations. A new system design must include, yet clearly differentiate, the desired outcomes for resources dedicated to housing stability from those dedicated to income progression and other elements of family self-sufficiency. At the system level, each county should begin now to address the essential components of system realignment: Inventory, Outcomes, Need, Funding, Housing Interventions, and Project Analyses.

Successful implementation of a new system design that emphasizes rapid re-housing will be dependent upon existing projects’ potential to convert. Individual project-level analyses should be fully integrated with the system analysis and decision-making. Project analyses should include the Six Key Indicators for Conversion: 1) Organizational Commitment, 2) Mission and Program Rules, 3) Population Served, 4) Physical Structure, 5) Funding, and 6) Performance Measures.

Investments in transitional housing in Pierce, King and Snohomish Counties have been substantial. These investments represent the tremendous efforts of stakeholders in the tri-county region to mobilize and align resources in ways that had never before been accomplished in the country. The work needed to convert resources of this magnitude into a strategic system response with an emphasis on rapid re-housing will require considerable efforts among all Homeless Families Initiative stakeholders. The region’s history of collaboration around ending family homelessness and its potential for using data to inform decision-making provide a unique opportunity for policymakers, funders, and providers to collaboratively realign resources and create a system response that has a balanced array of interventions to end family homelessness