06/04/2012 - What will it take to end family homelessness?

For those who ask me to describe the face of family homelessness, I often recommend they start by looking into a mirror. Whether from an act of nature or recession-era unemployment and mortgage foreclosures – even the more fortunate among us could find ourselves homeless tomorrow.

Although a host of different factors can catapult a family into crisis, we know some families are more at risk than others. More than 80% of homeless families are headed by single parents, and more than 80% of these parents are women. Most have young children. Families of color are at disproportional risk. These characteristics suggest poverty is, of course, at the root of family homelessness – single mothers, particularly those with limited educations and skills – find themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder, often not able to keep their families housed with the income generated by one wage earner working minimum wage.

However, poverty and the lack of sufficient financial capital is only one of the roots of homelessness. The lack of sufficient social capital may be just as significant a cause– no one to help with the rent or a place to live, or the offer of a job, or child care, or a pathway out of violence, physical and emotional trauma.

It is largely the absence of this social capital that leads so many vulnerable and homeless families to engage with so many different systems of care and support to address their needs and lift themselves into stability. These families may not just seek to engage with homeless services, but with a variety of other mainstream systems relevant to their situations. These services may include domestic violence, child welfare, education, workforce development, mental health and addictions, financial supports – to name just a few. This is where the challenges faced by families experiencing homelessness become compounded, not because of family dysfunction, but because too many of these systems engage with their clients without any meaningful connectivity with each other. The dysfunction is at the systems level; integrating the activities across systems could lead to better outcomes for families and a more efficient use of limited funds.

In Washington State, a recent study of families who were homeless revealed that they had anywhere from 2 to 7 case managers per family – and that most of these case managers never connected with each other. Imagine what your life would be like if you had to meet the needs of seven different treatment and service plans, each of them prioritizing different activities, goals and measures of success! Money, time and energy are all wasted through the failure to integrate across the many mainstream systems that touch the same families. What if all of these systems worked together, in a coordinated fashion, to best understand and help each family meet the needs they had identified and prioritized?

With the right types of housing support and the right configuration of services adjusted to best meet each family’s needs, we can move toward clearly defined activities to do more to help families while promoting much more efficient uses of the money available. 

This challenges all of us to think outside of the box – to think beyond the silos and systems that all too often constrain our thinking and inhibit our creativity.

  • What if Public Housing Authorities were to align their voucher resources with school districts experiencing high volumes of student turnover due to housing instability and homelessness? Could we turn these schools around, and begin to interrupt the cycle of multi-generational poverty? In Tacoma, WA, this work is underway, with remarkably promising results.
  • What would happen if the principles of Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing were applied to survivors of domestic violence? Could we reduce shelter utilization, increase family safety, and stretch the resources in play to serve a much larger number of survivors? Pioneering efforts in Portland, OR and Washington State are pointing the way to new models of response with thought-provoking outcomes.

These are only a few examples of how thinking outside of the box helps lead to solutions to family homelessness. These efforts require reaching across the many systems that touch these families in fragmented and disconnected ways to create integrated responses that meet the needs of families as they identify them – rather than as our funding streams are currently structured to address them.

By listening to what families really need to recover from homelessness, and forging new cross-system relationships to effectively address these needs, we can create stronger and more effective solutions, even in the midst of the most severe budget crises.

The more we think about that homeless family as our own face in the mirror, the more effectively we will work to craft solutions based on the urgency required to end family homelessness, once and for all.

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