Opening Doors: Homelessness Among Families

Current Trends

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Point In Time (PIT) data, the number of persons in families experiencing homelessness increased slightly between 2009 and 2010, after a 25 percent decrease between 2005 and 2009. On a single January night in 2010, nearly 242,000 persons in families experienced homelessness in America. Although the 2011 national data has not yet been released, many communities have released the results of their local 2011 PIT counts and have continued to see increases in family homelessness. A prolonged recession between 2007 and 2009 and the continued sluggish economy has seen unemployment rates rise. According to the U.S. censuse bureau, the number of Americans living below the poverty line reached 43.6 million in 2009 — a 10 percent increase in just one year. At the same time HUD housing studies show that the affordable housing stock has shrunk in recent years.

Faced with limited options, many low-income families double up in households with family or friends, often living in overcrowded apartments as a last best choice before entering a shelter or sleeping in their cars. These “doubled-up” households are not captured in the HUD numbers cited above. Last year the Department of Education reported that nearly 1 million children attending public schools experienced homelessness, a number which includes children living in doubled-up households. This number has been increasing since 2007, with the number of children living in doubled-up households accounting for most of the increase.

The average family experiencing homelessness is headed by a single mother in her late twenties with two children, at least one of whom is under the age of six. More than 80 percent of mothers with children experiencing homelessness have previously experienced domestic violence in their lifetime.

Ending Family Homelessness by 2020

Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness set the goal of ending homelessness for families by 2020.  Over the last year, there has been unprecedented collaboration from federal agencies — with one another, and with state and local governments and nonprofits — in our efforts to implement the plan.

The Recovery Act investment of $1.5 billion in HUD’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) has been one of the most significant success stories, giving communities needed funding during the economic downturn to stem the rising tide of family homelessness.  From the program’s inception in late 2009 through May 2011, over 1 million people have received assistance under the program in the form of prevention or rapid re-housing assistance with case management or short-term financial resources.  Overall, nearly 90 percent of program participants exited into permanent housing.  Without HPRP, the numbers of families experiencing homelessness on a given night in 2010 would have likely been much higher.

HPRP’s success paved the way for systems change in communities across the country by encouraging a new focus on prevention models and rapid re-housing techniques which are most effective for families.  It also created a learning opportunity to determine which strategies are the most successful in reducing the number of families entering shelter and the length of time they spend there.  The success of HPRP has spurred action and informed VA planning efforts around the new Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program.  In July, VA announced $60 million in homeless prevention grants that will serve approximately 22,000 Veteran families at-risk of or experiencing homelessness. 
Collaborative work among federal agencies is critical to preventing and ending family homelessness.  Opening Doors has shifted the federal government’s response to bring mainstream resources to bear.  For example, HUD has been looking at the role its public housing and affordable housing portfolio plays to prevent family homelessness and house homeless families.  These resources are administered locally with local decisions about policy and practice.

The Plan

Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness sets the goal of ending homelessness for families in ten years. Families need affordable housing, sustainable employment, and community services to help them avoid or quickly exit homelessness. In order to reach this ambitious goal, all partners at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as the private and nonprofit sectors, must be engaged and focused on proven solutions, especially in these four key areas:

1. Provide Affordable Housing

The Plan seeks to expand affordable housing opportunities through improved targeting of current housing programming that provides rental subsidies as well as an increase in construction of new or rehabilitated housing.

2. Increase Meaningful and Sustainable Employment

Programs designed to connect people to employment must also consider the particular needs of those who are experiencing homelessness rather than creating barriers to access and support. Best practices must be implemented and employment strategies must be coordinated with housing and other interventions to provide workforce training and guidance for job seekers experiencing homelessness.

3. Reduce Financial Vulnerability

While many families experiencing or most at risk of homelessness are eligible for federal programs providing health care, income support, and work support, surprisingly few people access the full range of programs and services available to them. Enhanced public information and improved access to services are key.

4. Transform the Homeless Crisis Response System

Given the documented success of the Housing First model— an intervention that assists participants to move quickly into permanent housing with support services needed to achieve and maintain housing stability—communities that retool their crisis response systems with a focus on prevention and rapid re-housing will achieve greater success in reducing homelessness among families.