Do Services Matter for Homeless Families?

'Poor African children keeping their hands up - asking for help. Many African children suffer from poverty - 20%25 of Africaa
'Poor African children keeping their hands up - asking for help. Many African children suffer from poverty - 20%25 of Africaaas children will die before the age of five. Every day 30,000 children die from a combination of disease- infested water and malnutrition,'

How can this question still be open for debate? Somehow, inexplicably, it is.

Policymakers agree that deep housing subsidies contribute significantly to residential stability for families who have experienced homelessness. But the impact of services on these families continues to be debated.

As the number of families without homes continues to increase, more attention is being focused on their plight. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has committed to ending family homelessness by 2020. However, policymakers have avoided addressing the role of services by insisting that homeless families can turn to mainstream sources -- even though we know how hard it is even for well-connected families of means to access these services.

Most of us know from experience that various services were essential to our own growth and our family's cohesion. As children, we saw pediatricians; we may have received help in school; many of our parents needed childcare so they could work; transportation was critical; and some of us with special needs required specialized care. Services matter for all families. We are all interdependent, unable to survive in our complex society without help and support from one another.

Women, in particular, view their self-worth in relationship to their affiliations and their role as caregivers. Services, and both formal and informal supports, build their social capital, which may include extended families, friends, neighbors, and faith groups. The intensity and mix of services may change as children grow and family circumstances alter. Without both housing and services tailored to their needs, many newly housed families will become homeless again, or remain isolated and destabilized even after they exit homelessness.

As research has clearly documented, most families and children experiencing homelessness have been exposed to high levels of traumatic stress, sometimes leading to long-term adverse mental and physical outcomes. These stresses include: unexpected death of a parent; serious accidents; parents with mental health or substance use issues; parents who are in prison; childhood physical and sexual abuse; and community violence. These experiences require supportive responses. Yet the current policy debate on national homelessness policy continues to question whether services matter for stabilizing homeless families in community-based permanent housing. The lack of rigorous research on the nature and intensity of essential services for these families has allowed stereotypes and biases to fill in.

We know that housing is essential to ending family homelessness, but it is not sufficient. A recent report entitled "Services Matter: How Housing and Services Can End Family Homelessness" presents findings from the first national survey of service providers who work with homeless families in local communities. Among the survey's findings:

  • 85% of service providers see family homelessness increasing in their area over the past two years.
  • 93% of providers agree that most families need services and supports to remain stably housed.
  • Only 14% say that housing alone can end family homelessness.

The report profiles five exemplary programs from local communities around the country to illustrate the essential components of a comprehensive solution to family homelessness:

  1. Permanent affordable housing
  2. Education, job training, and income supports
  3. Assessment of parents and children
  4. Trauma-informed care
  5. Recognition and treatment of depression in mothers
  6. Family preservation
  7. Parenting supports
  8. Children's developmental and mental health needs

From 30 years of research and field experience, we know how to end this tragic social problem. We now have to give families and providers a voice, and mobilize the political will to make this a top priority.