Children and Family Homelessness

More than 151,000 families with children experienced homelessness at some point in 2017. These families are typically composed of a young mother and one or two children under the age of six. They are difficult to distinguish from the vast majority of families with poverty-level incomes who do not become homeless: adults in both groups have low levels of education and work experience, a high likelihood of having been exposed to trauma and abuse, and comparable rates of mental health problems.

Research evidence indicates that homelessness among families is more likely to be influenced by economic cycles compared with individual homelessness. However, the similarities between families who become homeless and other low-income families make it difficult to design a prevention program that effectively and efficiently targets those families who are most at risk.

For those families who do become homeless, ample evidence suggests that a permanent housing subsidy—provided through the Housing Choice Voucher program or another long-term rent subsidy—is the best way for homeless families to obtain and maintain stable housing.

Families who exit emergency shelters with a long-term rent subsidy are significantly less likely to return to shelter or experience other forms of housing instability, such as multiple moves or crowding. While homeless families need a variety of services, residential programs with on-site supervision and services, such as transitional housing, appear to be unnecessary for most families who experience homelessness.

What are the implications for policymakers and practitioners?

From the available evidence, we can draw some clear lessons for policy and practice:

  • The availability of mainstream housing assistance makes a substantial difference for ending homelessness for families with children. Organizations at the community level working to help families experiencing homelessness become stably housed should work with the public housing agency and with other providers of assisted housing to increase the extent to which this resource is available for preventing and ending family homelessness.
  • Communities should examine carefully the role of transitional housing for families. If transitional housing continues to be part of the homeless services system, these service-rich environments should be appropriately targeted to high-needs families.
  • Like other poor families, families who experience homelessness need an array of services and supports. It is important to build connections between training and services that are available in the community and housing providers who can refer families experiencing and at risk of homelessness to these services. Such services include job training programs, education, and others that help to build participants’ employment and earning potential.

Read the full research brief to see the underlying research evidence.

Last updated July 2019

[Last updated July 2019]

Marybeth Shinn
Michelle Wood
Daniel Gubits
Debra Rog

Family Options Study
Housing Choice Vouchers