Families with Children: Population Trends and Characteristics

Families experiencing homelessness are, as a whole, similar to other very low-income families. They face a range of obstacles such as low educational level, sporadic work histories, domestic violence, health conditions, and mental health issues. Despite these broad similarities, some trends are more prevalent in families experiencing homelessness. Recent data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) indicates that approximately 80 percent of families experiencing homelessness are headed by a single mother. Additionally, the average age of the mothers is younger than that of low-income mothers in general, and families that experience homelessness, on average, include younger children.

We also know that domestic violence is a common cause or contributing factor to the loss of housing for many families. The occurrence of domestic violence among women experiencing homelessness is reported as over 60 percent. In addition, recent research has identified a strong correlation between childhood adversity and adults in families later experiencing homelessness. 

The 2013 Point-In-Time Count found 222,197 persons in families, an estimated 70,960 households, homeless on a night in January. Since 2010, there were 19,754 fewer people in families experiencing homelessness on a single night. The decline was most prominent among unsheltered people in families, which decreased by nearly 40 percent. However, the number of sheltered people in families has risen slightly since 2010, by less than one percent. In addition, the Department of Education reports that nearly 1,065,794 children were identified as homeless over the course of the 2010-2011 school year by public schools.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 resulted in targeted interventions to stem the rise in unemployment and strengthen the housing market, and increased investments in affordable housing and homelessness interventions during the peak of the economic crisis.  However, many of the economic factors associated with homelessness, such as poverty, unemployment, and tight rental markets, still remain at elevated levels. 

The current response to family homelessness relies heavily on emergency shelters and transitional housing. According to HUD’s 2012 Housing Inventory Count (HIC), there were a total of 107,815 temporary and permanent housing units available to assist families experiencing homelessness. The number of rapid re-housing program slots for families fell from 11,519 in January 2011 to 6,422 in January 2012, as funding for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) was ending.


Affordable housing, including public housing and Housing Choice Vouchers, are also essential resources that can assist families experiencing homelessness. In most cases, these resources are not targeted specifically to such families. For example, HUD reports that approximately one-third of all Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) have a preference for homeless households. But the data on the number of homeless families being served by these and other PHAs is currently limited and the definition of homelessness being used by PHAs varies widely. 

HUD also reports that the approximately 40 PHAs participating in the Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration are doing more specific work targeting families experiencing homelessness, but these numbers are not reflected in current reporting efforts.  On June 10, 2013, HUD published a notice to provide PHAs with a standard definition of homelessness and guidance for collection of data about this priority population.  This step is key to understanding how to prioritize homeless families for these limited resources.

In addition to temporary and permanent housing resources, a range of both targeted and “mainstream” supportive services exist that could help parents and children move out of crisis, achieve stability, and make progress to improve income, education, and well-being. These include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), child care subsidies, Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSI/SSDI) for parents and children with disabilities.

Other mainstream supportive services include education, employment, and training services for parents, early childhood care and learning support for children under six years old, and school access and academic assistance programs for school-age children. Health care services including primary care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, domestic violence counseling and support, and child welfare services are also available mainstream services that can be provided to families experiencing homelessness.

Many of these services are not entitlements and may be oversubscribed or at capacity and have waiting lists for services. Moreover, there is some evidence that families that experience homelessness encounter barriers to accessing “mainstream” supportive services for which they may be eligible. In addition, most “mainstream” supportive services are not directly linked to permanent housing interventions.  

There is also little discernible difference between families who spend an extended period of time in shelters or transitional housing and those that exit more quickly.  Researchers have found that, both families with relatively short shelter stays, classified as “temporary,” and those with much longer stays, classified as “long-stayers,” face challenges similar to low income families as a whole. However, a small number of families, between two and eight percent of those who use shelter are classified as “episodic.”  These families used shelter on average three or more times during the study period, and, were more likely to have had interactions with other systems such as child protective services or behavioral health services.

Families who use transitional housing, with or without an emergency shelter stay, incur costs that are 44 to 48 percent higher than those that use shelter alone. No research to date has demonstrated significantly better outcomes from stays in transitional housing that justify the greater cost. Emerging data from communities surveyed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness indicates that housing outcomes from transitional housing, both at exit and one year later, are not as strong as from rapid re-housing. Transitional housing typically costs many times more than rapid rehousing. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has reported average costs of rapid re-housing for families of approximately $4,100 compared with transitional housing costs of approximately $22,200 per family.

This suggests that there is an opportunity to reduce per family costs and serve more households by designing homelessness assistance to re-house families to permanent housing more quickly.

While data indicates that families experiencing homelessness have even lower incomes, because families experiencing homelessness are similar to other very low-income families and face similar challenges, we know that predicting which families are likely to become homeless is very difficult. However, we also know that, with the right amount of assistance, connection to permanent housing, the strengthening of local crisis response systems, and the strategic use of resources and evidence-based strategies, communities can ensure that homelessness among families with children is a rare and brief occurrence.