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HOUSING FIRST
Ending Family Homelessness

Responding to America's Challenges


The Problem: Ending & Preventing Family Homelessness

Homelessness is one of our nation's most serious social problems. While it is often the result of interwoven systemic and personal problems, the primary cause of homelessness among families is the growing gap between housing costs and income. The emergency shelter system is able to accommodate only a small fraction of the growing number of homeless families in need. Families are forced to live in their cars, in garages, in other places unfit for human habitation or to move from place to place with their children, staying intermittently with friends and families. Even a short period of homelessness can lead to depression, mental illness and child neglect, yet increasing numbers of families are homeless for months and sometimes years. Emergency shelters are unable to provide the intensive long-term assistance which homeless families require in order to stabilize their lives. While transitional housing programs do provide such assistance, families are more responsive to service interventions from a stable, permanent housing base.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, we are now experiencing a period when worst-case housing needs are at an all-time high. While some communities are beginning to see reductions in chronic homelessness, in many communities family homelessness is exploding and families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Many experts attribute the increase in the number of homeless families to a combination of the following factors:

  • Welfare reform
  • High rates of domestic violence
  • Declining purchasing power of low-wage jobs
  • Decrease in availability of affordable family housing
Responses to Date

For most of the past two decades, public and private solutions to homelessness have focused on providing homeless families with emergency shelter and/or transitional housing. While such programs may provide vital access to services for families in crisis, they often fail to address the long-term needs of homeless families. Families need help in finding affordable housing, negotiating leases and developing the skills to stay housed. Once a family becomes homeless, it is extremely difficult to get back into rental housing. There is a shortage of affordable housing available, particularly for larger families with children, and most property owners will not rent to a family that has a poor credit history or a previous eviction. Particularly single mothers face enormous obstacles in finding affordable, appropriate rental housing. Most property owners require security deposits along with first and last month's rent, and there are often deposits required to obtain utility service, especially if the renter has a history of nonpayment. Additionally, emergency shelters and transitional programs rarely assist families in overcoming the tremendous barriers they face in accessing permanent housing, such as poor credit and eviction histories, unemployment and lack of move-in funds. Left unaddressed, these factors can result in a family crisis leading to renewed homelessness. 

For those families who do find permanent housing, many would benefit from a variety of supportive services to help them stabilize and be linked to community-based resources and services. However, there are often limited or scattered support systems for families who are not living in a shelter or transitional housing program, and many communities either lack programs that address these interwoven causes of family homelessness, or those programs that do exist are not easily accessible or are hard to navigate without assistance.

The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, in its study Families on the Move, Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness (1996), confirmed that recently housed families are at severe risk of becoming homeless again in the near future. This is particularly true today. Long-established homeless providers testify that families in recent years are more dysfunctional than families of a few years ago. Additionally, homeless family members often suffer from extremely low self-images and multiple problems and typically have a history of domestic violence and/or substance abuse.

Linkages to permanent housing, support services to retain housing, and coordination of resources and services available in the community at-large are indispensable to ending and preventing family homelessness.

Housing First Methodology

"Housing first" or rapid re-housing as it is also known, is an alternative to the current system of emergency shelter/transitional housing, which tends to prolong the length of time that families remain homeless. The methodology is premised on the belief that vulnerable and at-risk homeless families are more responsive to interventions and social services support after they are in their own housing, rather than while living in temporary/transitional facilities or housing programs. With permanent housing, these families can begin to regain the self-confidence and control over their lives they lost when they became homeless.

For over 20 years, the housing first methodology has proven to be a practical means to ending and preventing family homelessness. The methodology is currently being adapted by organizations throughout the United States through  Beyond Shelter's Institute for Research, Training and Technical Assistance and the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Housing First Network

Recognized as a dramatic new response to the problem of family homelessness, the housing first approach stresses the return of families to independent living as quickly as possible. Created as a time-limited relationship designed to empower participants and foster self-reliance, not engender dependence, the housing first methodology:
  • provides crisis intervention to address immediate family needs, while simultaneously or soon thereafter assisting families to develop permanent housing and social service plans;

  • helps homeless families move into affordable rental housing in residential neighborhoods as quickly as possible, most often with their own lease agreements;

  • then provides six months to one year of individualized, home-based social services support "after the move" to help each family transition to stability.
The housing first approach provides a link between the emergency shelter/transitional housing systems that serve homeless families and the mainstream resources and services that can help them rebuild their lives in permanent housing, as members of a neighborhood and a community. In addition to assisting homeless families in general back into housing, the approach can offer an individualized and structured plan of action for alienated, dysfunctional and troubled families, while providing a responsive and caring support system.

The combination of housing relocation services and home-based case management enables homeless families to break the cycle of homelessness. The methodology facilitates long-term stability and provides formerly homeless families who are considered at risk of another episode of homelessness with the support and skill building necessary to remain in permanent housing.


The Housing First Approach is Implemented Through Four Primary Stages: 

  • Crisis Intervention & Short-Term Stabilization: This phase includes helping families access emergency shelter services and/or short-term transitional housing and address crisis needs.

  • Screening, Intake and Needs Assessment: The"needs assessment" results in an action plan for clients, which includes short- and- long-term goals and objectives with concrete action steps. This can occur immediately or after families are stabilized in emergency services.

  • Provision of Housing Resources: After the completion of screening and assessment, the next phase involves assisting families in moving into permanent, affordable housing in a safe neighborhood. This is accomplished by helping them overcome various barriers to obtaining permanent housing.

  • Provision of Case Management: Before the move into permanent housing, case management services help to identify clients' needs and to ensure families have sources of income through employment and/or public benefits. After the move, time-limited case management services focuses on helping families solve problems that may arise and to connect them with community services to meet longer-term needs.
While acknowledging and addressing the personal factors that contribute to family homelessness, the housing first methodology was designed to more effectively address the economic root cause of the problem: the lack of affordable housing. The program provides a critical link between the emergency/transitional housing system and the community-based social service, educational and health care organizations that bring about neighborhood integration and family self-sufficiency.

The approach deals with the interrelated problems that homeless families face: poverty, economic development, social infrastructure and housing. Services are provided in an integrated, holistic manner to place families, primarily female-headed households, not only back into housing, but into communities. It involves them in a progressive set of economic and social services after they are stabilized in permanent housing and are no longer traumatized by the crisis of homelessness.

Central to the effectiveness of housing first is the concept that empowerment helps clients identify their own needs, recognize the choices they have, create options for themselves and plan strategies for permanent change in their lives.

Evolving in an era of shrinking resources, the housing first approach places great emphasis on reducing duplication of effort and maximizing the effectiveness of community resources. By situating homeless families within the larger community, the program fosters human connection. The methodology is a cost-effective model that coordinates many existing systems and services, rather than creating new ones.


Read More:

To read about Beyond Shelter's Housing First Program in Los Angeles, please click here.

To view the Seaver Study Policy Brief, a longitudinal study of Beyond Shelter's "Housing First" Program participants, please click here.

To learn about the Pew Partnership's Initiative - Wanted: Solutions for America, and how Beyond Shelter's "Housing First" Program was recognized as a "Solution for America" by the Pew Partnership, please click here.

To read Housing First For Families: Research to Support the Development of a Housing First for Families Training Curriculum, conducted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, please click here.

To read about Beyond Shelter's methodology manual providing step-by-step guidance to adapting the "Housing First" methodology, please click here .

To read The "Housing First" Approach For Families Affected by Substance Abuse" an article by Tanya Tull, Beyond Shelter President/CEO, please click here.



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