It seems obvious: the best way to fight homelessness is just to give people housing. But around the U.S., most homeless families instead receive piecemeal, temporary support such as rental assistance or a bed in a shelter.
That's not cutting it. A major nationwide study of homelessness policies released last week found that giving homeless families permanent housing was by far the most effective technique at keeping them safe and supported.
The Family Options Study, which was first reported by The Atlantic this weekend, is the first ever nationwide experimental research project of this scale into which homeless policies work best for families. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Vanderbilt University, and the research firm Abt Associates, it analyzed data on 2,300 homeless families in 12 communities around the U.S. who had already spent a week in shelters.
Four groups of families were given different types of aid: The first group received vouchers for permanent housing (a relatively newer reform), the second received temporary rental assistance, the third received temporary housing along with medical assistance and counseling, and the fourth received nothing extra beyond emergency shelters that most homeless people rely on.
The study is expected to last three years; we're at the half-way point now. But already, the families who received permanent housing—known as Housing Choice Vouchers or Section 8—are in much better shape than the other groups. They've been less likely to spend time in shelters and faced a lower rate of health and domestic violence problems.
About one-quarter of the homeless families surveyed had spent at least one night in a homeless shelter in the past month; only about 10 percent of families using vouchers had. About 65 percent of homeless families in the usual-care group were food insecure; only about 10 percent of families receiving a voucher were. And about 4.6 percent of usual care homeless families said they were in fair or poor health; less than 1 percent of subsidy families were.
These results support the idea that "for most families, homelessness is a housing affordability problem that can be remedied with permanent housing subsidies without specialized homeless-specific psychosocial services," the study says. Permanent subsidies also appear to "have a radiating impact" on the well-being of adults and children.
"We find these effects go beyond just housing," Michelle Wood, the study's director, told Fusion. "The results are very exciting, and the evidence from the study is quite strong."
Permanent housing vouchers were the most expensive housing option of the four surveyed, ranging from $770 to $2,100 per-family per-month. But when you take into account the supportive services in the other programs, the vouchers were of comparable cost.
Vouchers are available to families under a plan by President Obama to end homelessness among children and families by 2020. The results of this study could encourage officials to assign more federal funding to permanent housing vouchers instead of other programs. But currently, there aren't enough vouchers for those who want them, and they're caught in political crossfire: Congress cut 100,000 vouchers under sequestration, while Obama wants to add another 67,000.
"The data is telling us that this is the most effective way to reduce permanent homelessness," Wood said. "It provides a really strong platform for policymakers and decision-makers going forward."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.