Assisting Families Experiencing Homelessness with TANF Funding: Findings from a Survey of TANF Administrators

Publication Date: April 9, 2021
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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

Research Questions

  1. Are states using TANF funds to address family homelessness? What approaches are being used?
  2. Are states using TANF funds to support programs to address homelessness? What approaches are being used?
  3. How are TANF agencies working Continuums of Care (CoCs) and local homeless providers?

This brief presents the methods TANF agencies use to identify families experiencing homelessness, the extent to which agencies use TANF funds to provide housing services to families experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness, and what organizations TANF agencies partner with to provide housing assistance.

At this time, many states do not specifically target their TANF funds to assist families experiencing or at-risk of homelessness. Reflecting the broad discretion that states have to administer their TANF funds, currently, there is not a uniform process states use identify families experiencing or at-risk of homelessness, nor is there a standard set of available services or benefits.

Purpose

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a cornerstone of America’s approach to supporting self-sufficiency. Because TANF is a federal block grant program, states have considerable discretion and flexibility in determining their policies, financing, and implementation approach. TANF is an important tool that states can leverage in connecting families experiencing homelessness to the services they need, including TANF-funded services such as cash assistance and childcare support, and more traditional housing supports such as rapid re-housing programs and subsidized housing.

This brief considers the extent to which TANF agencies across the country are using TANF funds to serve and support families experiencing or at-risk of homelessness. This information provides a better understanding of state TANF agencies’ overall philosophies and policies toward addressing family homelessness and the extent to which local TANF programs are implementing these policies.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • TANF agencies have a variety of approaches to support families experiencing homelessness, and for providing services exclusively to families experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness.
  • States do not have a uniform definition for homelessness, though the majority include components from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition. Almost all TANF programs ask and collect information about housing status via an application for TANF assistance, though the steps after determining housing status vary.
  • Less than a third of TANF programs designate certain benefits or services only for families experiencing homelessness. Less than half of state administrators designate TANF funding to provide housing services generally. Instead, states report their role as providing technical assistance and coordinating different organizations’ responses.
  • States report partnering with state-level housing departments, direct providers of homelessness services, local public housing agencies, and Continuums of Care. Many TANF agencies partner by providing funding, but this coordination does not extend to data sharing.

Methods

This brief is based primarily on findings from a survey of state TANF administrators conducted in 2019. The study team administered an online survey to all 54 state and territory TANF administrators and a sample of three county TANF administrators per state. The study team selected the three counties from each state to provide a range of urbanicities, size of population experiencing homelessness, and geographic location within the state.

The survey findings are supplemented with findings from a review of state TANF plans. In 2018, the research team coded and analyzed 25 state TANF plans and associated policy documents.

Citation

Dunton, Lauren, and Cara Sierks (2021). Assisting Families Experiencing Homelessness with TANF Funding: Findings from a Survey of TANF Administrators, OPRE Report #2021-43, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Glossary

HUD:
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
CoC:
Continuum of Care
TANF:
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families