How best to assist homeless families?

“We can do better for homeless families.”

…so begins an article entitled “Ending Family Homelessness” on a Worchester, Massachusetts news site (

It tells of the state’s Emergency Assistance (EA) program, designed to serve 5,000 homeless families and 10,000 children annually. It allots nearly all of its resources to keeping families in hotels and shelters. The average cost per family is nearly $30,000.

The authors, experts in social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, say that the state will spend $150 million on the program this year. It is $60 million over budget.

Than means that more and more families are living in shelters and hotels.

Yes, that is better than living in a car or on the streets, but…could there be a better way to help?

The authors, who recently published a white paper on family homelessness, assert that Massachusetts needs to reallocate those resources and commit them to solving the problem, instead of enlarging it.

Placing an emphasis on shelters now, during an economic downturn may not be optimum. Many families currently face an array of housing crises.

“…shelter entry is not necessary for many families, and indefinite shelter stays are not a formula for promoting housing stability for any family. “

The authors,  Dennis P. Culhane –a professor of social policy–and Thomas Byrne, a predoctoral fellow, instead recommend flexible forms of assistance geared toward helping families with varying needs achieve housing stability.

For families requesting shelter, prevention and diversion services that can help them to avoid a shelter entry are in order. Establishing multiple eligibility criteria and providing different levels of assistance that match families’ needs ought to be the priority. The focus should always be on stabilizing families in housing as soon as possible.

Alternative approaches to shelter, like relocation grants and transitional rental assistance, can work and provide better outcomes to families at a lower cost to taxpayers, the authors suggest.

The state cannot hope to end homelessness while simultaneously increasing spending on shelters and motels. These are mutually exclusive objectives. Families and children are far better off in stable homes than in temporary shelters, the article states.

We at HMHI recognize the important work family shelters accomplish and we’re grateful for the programs that provide such shelter in the Quad Cities. At the same time, we’ve been pioneering a different sort of program to assist single-parent families who lack stable housing for the last twenty years.

As the experts recommend, we treat each family individually, recognizing that they each have unique needs and assets.

We know that alternatives to shelter living can and do work.

We see that happen right before our eyes…every day.


Photo credit: photographer Shaun Osburn, St. Anthony Dining Room on Flickr

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