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National Homelessness Study That Includes Kansas City Shows Promise In Housing Vouchers

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Valerie Everett
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A new national study aims to find an effective end to family homelessness.

In 2011, Kansas City reported less than half a percent of its population as homeless. Though this may seem like a small sliver of the population, the U.S. has the largest population of homeless children and women in the industrialized world.

 

Within the next year, 1.6 million children will experience homelessness in America.

 

It’s numbers like these that prompted the national Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to approach Congress in 2008 to find a solution to effectively end the housing crisis for homeless families in America.

Congress, however, wanted more research on the effectiveness of different types of housing programs in order to make an informed decision.

That request led to what is now known as the first ever national homelessness study, called the Family Options Study.

The study, carried out by Abt Associates, chose 2,300 homeless families from 12 cities, including Kansas City, and randomly assigned them to one of four different housing intervention programs — permanent housing subsidy through vouchers, rapid rehousing, project-based traditional housing and usual methods, such as emergency shelters.

Over the course of three years, Abt Associates researchers will analyze how effective each of the four options are in relation to housing, economic and food stability, among other areas.

“It’s the first time that social scientists have carried out a long-term study and measured a range of outcomes for families experiencing homelessness,” says Michelle Wood, a researcher at Abt Associates who leads the project.

The study is currently 18 months into its research. So far, the results have been promising for one option in particular: vouchers.

Housing vouchers are a subsidy that reduce the cost of housing. The families pay a portion of the rent for housing based on their income, and the voucher covers the rest of the cost.

Edwin Lowndes, the executive director of the Housing Authority of Kansas City, is part of the local company that issues voucher options to homeless families for the study.

“We’ve known it anecdotally and it's very good to have the research to back it up,” says Lowndes.

“We see that families are more likely to obtain stable housing when they have a long term subsidy,” explains Lowndes. “They are able to focus on other aspects in their lives once they have stability in their housing.”

Wood agrees. “The children [of voucher housing] had fewer moves among schools, families had less economic stress, and the adults experienced less in psychological distress and domestic violence," she says.

Vouchers seem to be the optimal solution to resolving homelessness in America, but there has been one unforeseen downside. Families using vouchers are less likely to be employed, even with their stable housing. Only one-third of families with vouchers in the study were employed.

Regardless, Michelle Wood remains optimistic about the results.

“It’s certainly something we will be looking at in the longer term to see if this finding continues to persist as they move along in their more stable housing option,” says Wood. ”But while we see reductions in employment, we see improvement in areas like food security.”

With 18 months left in the study, there is still much to learn from this large social experiment.

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