Long-Term Housing Vouchers Help Families Stay Together 

 By Monae Evans

Housing stability—secured by long-term rental vouchers that permit formerly homeless families to live in market-rate apartments— dramatically reduces family separations, foster care placements, and stresses that often lead to future episodes of homelessness. That’s what researchers have concluded from analyzing an extensive Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Family Options Study. 

The September 2010-January 2012 study included 2,282 families (with more than 5,000 children) living in emergency shelters for seven or more days in 12 communities representing a mix of geographic locations, sizes, and housing and labor market conditions. Its purpose: Assess a variety of housing and service interventions for their effects on housing stability, family preservation, self-sufficiency, and adult-child wellbeing. It looked at three interventions: “permanent” housing subsidies (Section 8 “housing choice” vouchers for as long as families met eligibility requirements); transitional housing for up to 24 months that included broad psycho-social services; and temporary rapid-re-housing subsidies with more limited housing and employment assistance. A fourth “usual care” group of families was expected to seek housing and services on their own. 

Marybeth Shinn and Scott R. Brown of Vanderbilt University and Daniel Gubits of Abt Associates analyzed data from this study to determine the extent to which housing subsidies and other interventions reduce family separations (children from parents and adult partners from each other), and the predictors of such separations. They hypothesized that where family separations are caused by financial hardship and housing instability—which they determined using a scale that measures families’ abilities to pay rent and medical care among other necessities—housing 

subsidies would ameliorate those problems and reduce separations. They also hypothesized that where separations are due to psychosocial challenges experienced by parents, transitional housing, which offers services directed toward these challenges, would reduce them, and that lower levels of alcohol dependence, drug abuse, and domestic violence would reduce separations. 

Their findings, published in a December 2016 article in the American Journal of Community Psychology, “Can Housing and Service Interventions Reduce Family Separations for Families Who Experience Homelessness?” suggest that housing vouchers reduce child separations for all indicators except substance abuse. Permanent subsidies, in fact, appeared to have the most significant impact relative to other interventions in cutting rates of child separations and foster care placement; they also significantly reduced such precursors to child separations as subsequent episodes of homelessness and intimate partner violence. 

As in previous studies of families experiencing homelessness, they found separations of parents from children and partners to be “rampant.” But for families receiving the housing voucher, the rate of child separations was sharply lowered (9.8% as opposed to 16.9% in the usual care group), and the rate of foster care placements dropped by more than two-thirds (1.4% in the permanent subsidy group versus 5% in the usual care group). 

Transitional housing did not reduce rates of family separations, suggesting to the researchers that ending homelessness with housing vouchers was more important than providing services while families remained homeless. Housing stability provided by long-term vouchers often succeeds not only in preventing homelessness, but also in preventing child separations. However, no intervention reduced partner separations. 

Read the full report: Adrift in NYC: Family Homelessness and the Struggle to Stay Together