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Working Toward the End of Family Homelessness

A model home being presented by two hands.By Nora Gilligan and Rachel Terry, Office of Family Assistance

“No one should experience homelessness – no one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.” So states the vision of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness’ publication: “Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.”

The Plan, published in 2010, sets the goal to “prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children” by the year 2020. This is a high-reaching goal, to be sure, but one that the Interagency Council’s 19 member agencies are committed to working toward.

The problem: when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual “point-in-time” count of homelessness in the United States, it was estimated that on a single night in 2012 there were 633,782 people without stable housing. Of these, 394,379 were homeless as individuals (62 percent) and 239,403 were homeless in families (38 percent). However, while the number of homeless individuals had declined by 1.4 percent since January 2011, family homelessness had increased by the same amount (a homeless family is defined as having at least one adult and one child).

The Office of Family Assistance (OFA) works within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF), and is a critical partner in addressing the increase in family homelessness. OFA administers the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides financial assistance - or, payments to cover basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter - and other support services to families in need. OFA recognizes that the characteristics and needs of families experiencing homelessness are often very similar to other very poor families with housing, and TANF funds can be used to serve both groups.

On Feb. 20, OFA released an Information Memorandum (IM) focused on the use of TANF funds to serve homeless families and families at risk of experiencing homelessness by encouraging TANF jurisdictions to consider the implementation of interventions that connect families to:

  • Permanent Housing
  • Employment
  • Child Care
  • Other Comprehensive Services

These services will help families improve their lives and avoid future homelessness. The IM describes examples of rapid re-housing projects and supportive services to homeless families, and highlights programs in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Utah, Washington and Illinois.
We at OFA have also participated in a series of webinars and other meetings with state agencies and homelessness advocacy groups, giving further guidance on how TANF may be used and encouraging states to communicate with one another about their different programs and ideas.

ACF has received a positive response to such efforts and to the IM, from a number of states interested in using TANF to support homeless families. This feedback is encouraging, and we look forward to learning more about the innovative ideas and approaches that are being shared.

President Barack Obama has secured his Administration’s ongoing commitment to addressing homelessness of all types: his recently announced Fiscal Year 2014 Budget requests $5.3 billion in homeless programs across federal agencies.

We at OFA and ACF are currently part of the Interagency Council’s Workgroup on Ending Family Homelessness, where we are looking at ways to align housing, health, education and human services as a means of reaching that 2020 goal.

In doing this work, we hope to see fewer families who are broken up by crisis, cycling through foster care and domestic violence systems, to name a few. We hope to see fewer American children who worry about where they will sleep on any given night – in a shelter, car or motel – instead of about doing their schoolwork. Finally, we hope to see parents who are able to rebuild their own lives, and their children’s, with a safe, affordable place to live. The faces and challenges of family homelessness are many, but not impossible to surmount.

The Office of Family Assistance administers several key federal grant programs, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, Tribal programs, Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood, and Health Profession Opportunity Grants. Our programs foster economically secure households and communities for the well-being and long-term success of children and families.

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