Supportive Housing Can Help Reach Families Falling Through the Cracks

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Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 28, Number 2

by Mary Cunningham and Michael Pergamit

Sabrina was stuck in a generational cycle that she was desperate to escape. Like many parents involved in the child welfare system, she had spent time in foster care as a child. After growing up and becoming a young mother of two, she struggled with homelessness, and both her kids were removed from her care. During the year and a half that Sabrina worked to get her life on track and get her kids back, her child welfare case manager referred her to a supportive housing program, which gave her a stable place to live and other supports. Having a permanent home eased the stress in Sabrina’s life. She no longer had to move from place to place, she could afford her rent each month, and she could manage her finances.

After finding a stable home and attending parenting classes, Sabrina was reunited with her children. She found a  construction job and maintained a routine that provided her young kids with stability. Life was still hard, but it wasn’t falling apart.

Sabrina’s story isn’t uncommon: Families who repeatedly are involved with the child welfare system are often the hardest to serve. Many of the parents were in foster care or faced abuse or neglect as children, and the cycle repeats with their own kids. Because families are dealing with several challenges at once—potentially involving substance use, mental health issues, or incarceration—service providers often struggle to find interventions that can help them in the long term.

But stories like Sabrina’s show there is an intervention that can work: Supportive housing can provide stability, which could over a longer period translate into improved parenting and child well-being.

Sabrina was part of a supportive housing demonstration program that targeted homeless and unstably housed families with the most needs in the child welfare system. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the Partnerships to Demonstrate the Effectiveness of Supportive Housing for Families in the Child Welfare System in 2012. This demonstration provided $5 million in five-year grants for intensive wraparound services to be linked with permanent, affordable housing marshalled by five demonstration communities (Broward County, Florida; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Connecticut; Memphis, Tennessee; and San Francisco, California).

The demonstration, which randomized 376 families to a treatment group and 431 families to a control group across the five sites, aimed to serve families involved with child welfare who had the most pressing needs. Almost a quarter of the parents enrolled in the demonstration had been, like Sabrina, in foster care as children, and about half had reports of abuse or neglect when they were kids. Now, they are back in the system as parents.

Families in the study have high rates of past homelessness, domestic violence incidents, criminal justice involvement, drug use disorders, and mental or physical health problems. Each site leveraged housing resources in their community by partnering with a local entity that provided rental assistance. At the Urban Institute, we completed a randomized controlled trial of the demonstration to evaluate the impact on families. We also interviewed families and program staff across the five sites to learn about parents’ experiences and about how sites implemented their supportive housing models.

We found that supportive housing overwhelmingly improves housing outcomes for families receiving these
services. One year after referral, 86 percent were living in their own apartment with a lease (compared to 48
percent in the control group). Families in the demonstration were, on average, 4 percentage points less likely
to face eviction, 13 percentage points less likely to experience homelessness, and 22 percentage points less likely to move two or more times.

We also found that supportive housing can lead to reduced removals and increased reunifications among children in out-of-home care, with some sites seeing a 30 percentage-point increase in reunifications among families in the demonstration. But child welfare results varied among the sites, demonstrating that implementation and context matters.

Our interviews showed that families in supportive housing felt more secure and less stressed because they had housing. Although families still faced significant challenges, they reported improved parent-child relationships, more consistent family routines, and some improvements in physical and mental health. All five sites in the demonstration provided evidence-based services that aimed to improve parenting skills by providing technical knowledge about how to navigate the day-to-day of parenting: talking to kids, maintaining routines and stability, and disciplining children.

Darlene, a parent in supportive housing in Memphis, said parenting was challenging as she struggled to give her kids the support they needed. She said having stable housing helped end her homelessness, but she needed more to become a better parent. The parenting class taught her about discipline and respect, which she said was helpful because she had her first child when she was 17 and was never taught how to be a mother. “When you get kids, like, a mother is supposed to teach their child what to do in case they do have children, or what. I wasn’t taught none of that,” she told us. “So, it’s like I constantly had children and never developed maturely as a woman to know what to do…. Even though I’m 29, I still need to work on things as a mother and as a parent.”

A healthy environment for children starts with a strong family and a home. This intervention provides that start and is a potential solution for families in the child welfare system who face the most complex challenges. As a parent who received supportive housing in San Francisco told us, “Having housing has helped us, you know, feel in a sense normalized, you know. And the stability is really important. So yeah, it has helped a tremendous amount. Freedom, safety. I’m comfortable, I’m kind of content and know that I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to sleep, or I can take my baby to school every day and, you know…. I know that she has her own food, her own space. That’s important.”

Read more about our evaluation of this program here.


Michael Pergamit, a senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute, is a labor economist whose research is focused on vulnerable youth. He codirects an evaluation of a paid internship program for youth in Washington, DC, and Baltimore public schools; an evaluation of a mentoring/case management program in Washington, DC, and Maryland; and a demonstration involving pilot testing employment and training programs to aid disconnected youth. He was the project director for the Multi-Site Evaluation of Foster Youth Programs (Chafee evaluation) and is currently helping design the next set of evaluations. Before joining the Urban Institute, Pergamit spent 10 years at the National Opinion Research Center and 13 years at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For 10 years he was the director of the National Longitudinal Surveys at the BLS. He has a PhD from the University of Chicago.

Mary Cunningham is vice president for metropolitan housing and communities policy at the Urban Institute, where her research focuses on homelessness, housing, concentrated poverty, and efforts to improve family self-sufficiency and overall well-being among families that are low-income. She has expertise in several U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development homelessness and assisted housing programs, including permanent supportive housing,  transitional housing, emergency shelter, Housing Choice Vouchers, Family Self-Sufficiency, HOPE VI, and the Moving to Opportunity demonstration. She directs studies examining the impact of housing vouchers on child welfare involvement, the impact of supportive housing on high-need families in the child welfare system, and a homelessness prevention program for at-risk veterans. From 2005 to 2008, Cunningham launched and directed the Homeless Research Institute, the research and education arm of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. She also cochaired a research council on homelessness comprising nationally recognized academics and policy researchers. She also authored numerous reports, including A Research Agenda for Ending Homelessness and Homelessness Counts. Cunningham has an MPP from Georgetown University.

Other Articles in this Issue

Adopting through Foster Care, Building a Family: Inside The F Word Series

Complex Loss in a Complex System: Ambiguous Loss in Child Welfare

Parenting Practice or Policy and Procedure Mandate? Understanding the Impact of Foster Care, Adoption, and Kinship Care on Birth and Previously Adopted Children in Foster, Adoptive, and Kinship Families

Poverty, Child Welfare, and the Psychology of Scarcity

Community Action to Counteract the Problem of Youth Homelessness

Summer Camp: Modeling Positive Friendship, Family, and Love for Children in Foster Care

Spotlight On: Therapeutic Court — A Different Approach to Dependency Cases

Down to Earth Dad: The Fatherhood Rodeo

News from Capitol Hill: Child Welfare Policy — 2019 in Review

Working with the PRIDE Model of Practice: Place and Pray or Develop and Support — Why a Model of Practice is Essential for Foster Parent Retention and Recruitment

One On One: Interview with author Kathryn Brohl

Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

About the Author:

Rachel Adams is the managing editor of CWLA's Child Welfare journal and the editor for Children's Voice magazine, CWLA textbooks, children's books, and curricula. She updates the Children's Voice page.

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