Poor families with children who become homeless are, in many respects, indistinguishable from poor families with children who do not become homeless. These similarities make it difficult to predict which households will experience homelessness and, by extension, complicate efforts to allocate scarce funds for prevention in an efficient manner.
A research brief recently published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) explores one area of possible divergence: connections to the social safety net among families that have an episode of homelessness and those that do not. Exploring the extent to which homeless families participate in public benefit programs also allows us to understand whether they have access to programs that help to improve their income, food security, and children’s well-being, despite housing instability that makes it harder to apply for or keep benefits.
This brief uses data gathered through the Family Options Study, which looks at the experience of more than 2,000 families with children who used shelters between 2010 and 2012. The Family Options Study used this data to assess the effectiveness of various housing and services interventions for these families, but we can conduct additional analysis to gain insights into other areas.
Overall, the analysis found that rates of participation in benefit programs such as SNAP food assistance, publicly-funded health insurance, and TANF cash assistance were similar or higher for families experiencing homelessness, compared to other families experiencing deep poverty. Disconnection from the safety net does not distinguish homeless families from other families in deep poverty.
After 20 months, most of these families were no longer homeless, although they were still poor and continued to receive benefits. In general, it appears that families were able to maintain their connection to the social safety net after an episode of homelessness, although there is some variation based on the program. Receipt of SNAP and publicly-funded health insurance remained level after 20 months at around 86 percent, while the percent of families receiving TANF cash assistance dropped from 41 percent to 33 percent. This decline could be explained by a number of factors, including income increases or reaching the lifetime enrollment limit.