Best Way to Help Homeless Families? Give Them Homes

New study finds Section 8 vouchers cost less and help more than shelters.

Photo: Liz Spikol

Photo: Liz Spikol

Each year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts a “Point-in-Time” count of the homeless population in areas around the country. The count of Philadelphia homeless was 3,327 on a January evening this year.

There are many reasons why the city’s  population on the streets is as high as it is, one being the lack of housing supply for homeless families, who often face a shortage of facilities that are willing to accept children. When the number of people being turned away from emergency shelters nearly tripled between 2011 and 2013, Axis Philly found that most of them were members of families.

Given that homelessness is particularly acute for families within Philly, the results from the first-ever large-scale study on various forms of assistance for homeless families is worth a closer look. And those results show that homeless families would be aided most effectively not in emergency shelters, but through other forms of intervention like low-income housing vouchers.

The research is rigorous. The Family Options Study — conducted through a partnership between the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Vanderbilt University — looked at 2,282 families in 12 communities from around the country, including Kansas City, Boston and Phoenix. Each family had at least one child 15 years or younger and was placed into one of four focus groups, each of which received a different type of housing assistance. One received a voucher for permanent (Section 8) housing; another received monetary assistance to rent in the private market; the third group was placed in temporary living spaces that included counseling; and the last group — intended to simulate the current norm for homeless families — was called the “usual care” group. Those families were placed in shelters and had to seek out counseling and other assistance on their own.

After 20 months of data (it will be a three-year-long study in all), the midterm results show that the families that got housing vouchers fared better. A lot better. As a HUD executive wrote in the report:

Families who were offered a housing voucher experienced significant reductions in subsequent homelessness, mobility, child separations, adult psychological distress, experiences of intimate partner violence, school mobility among children, and food insecurity at 18 months. Moreover, the benefits of the voucher intervention were achieved at a comparable cost to rapid re-housing and emergency shelter and at a lower cost than transitional housing.

Data from the report expands on these outcomes. The voucher group was more likely to live in a house or apartment of their own, have fewer people per room and move less frequently, on average, 18-20 months later, compared to the usual care group. Voucher families were half as likely to report experiencing homelessness at all in the 6 months prior to the midterm survey. Further, families given vouchers reduced the burden on emergency shelters. Among study participants, only 15 percent of families in the voucher group had spent any time in an emergency shelter during the period seven to 18 months after the initial intervention. That rate was almost double among families in the fourth (usual care) group, 28 percent of whom had stayed in an emergency shelter over that period.

Besides analyzing the different types of housing, the study also parsed out the impact that services like financial counseling had on homeless families. Interestingly, these additional services had no impact on their long-term stability, as Next City writes:

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.

That being said, the early returns from the Family Options Study are being viewed skeptically in some circles for a few reasons. One charge is that the study underestimated the cost of Section 8 housing vouchers and that they’re prohibitively expensive compared to the other interventions.

According to the study, costs of the voucher program were not significantly greater — or were cheaper — than the other interventions studied. When taking into account the supplementary services and counseling that families accessed, the subsidized voucher families used $30,000 worth of federal services during the 20-month period, identical to the “usual care” families. Rapid re-housing families used $29,000 worth of services. But on a monthly basis, the study concluded that when comparing strictly the cost of housing, permanent subsidized housing was roughly two-thirds the cost of emergency shelters.

But the president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness criticized HUD for making Section 8 vouchers seem cheaper than they really are.

A second knock against the study was that it compared apples to oranges. Section 8 vouchers are intended to be long-term solutions, while the three other interventions are self-consciously providing crisis assistance. Lastly, the voucher group in the study wasn’t a realistic simulation of the subsidized housing program in many ways, because the homeless families in the survey didn’t have to linger on a waiting list — which is almost a given for families who apply.

Indeed, in Philadelphia, the voucher waiting list is so long it’s been closed since 2010. In other words, even if vouchers are the best, most cost-effective way to help homeless families, the federal government will need to pour a lot more cash into the program for those families to get Section 8 help.