Employment of Families Experiencing Homelessness

Publication Date: August 16, 2018
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The Homeless Families Research Briefs project, conducted by Abt Associates, is producing a series of research briefs on issues related to the well-being and economic self-sufficiency of families and children experiencing homelessness. Using data collected from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Family Options Study, these briefs build on the data and analysis already being conducted for HUD to answer additional questions of interest to HHS.


This series of research briefs explores issues of family homelessness that are especially relevant to HHS, to state and local decision makers, and for programs. The Employment of Families Experiencing Homelessness brief explores parents’ earnings at the time the family was in emergency shelter, prior to becoming homeless and at 20 and 37 months after experiencing homelessness. This new brief examines employment rates, compares the employment rates of families experiencing homelessness to the employment rate of parents in deeply poor families in the same communities, discusses barriers parents identified for not working, and explores the relationship between employment, income, and continued housing instability.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Compared to deeply poor families in the same communities, employment rates were lower among parents in families who experienced homelessness. In the week prior to entering emergency shelter, 17 percent of parents worked for pay, compared to 27 percent of parents in deeply poor families in the same communities.
  • Most parents who were not working reported an inability to find work, family responsibilities, or health issues as the reason they were not employed. Of those parents who were not working in the week before shelter entry, about 33 percent reported that they were not able to find work, and another 17 percent cited family or child care responsibilities as the primary reason for not working.
  • Although employment rates increased over time, to 38 percent three years after the shelter stay, employment during the three year period was very unstable. Only 7 percent of parents were employed at all three points in time – immediately before entering shelter, 20 months later, and 37 months later.
  • Average total income (from all sources) for families in shelter was low and increased only modestly in the three years following the shelter stay, from about $9,500 in the year before shelter entry to $12,000 three years later.
  • Families with parents who were not working for pay three years after entering shelter were more likely to have experienced another spell of homelessness or to have lived in a doubled up situation than families with parents who were working for pay three years later (37 percent compared to 28 percent), although the direction of causality is unclear.


This research brief takes advantage of data collected for the Family Options Study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The study involves 2,282 homeless families with children who entered shelter in one of twelve communities across the country. To provide the strongest possible evidence of the effects of the housing and services interven­tions, the study uses an experimental research design with random assignment of families to one of the types of housing programs or to a control group.

While the Family Options Study sample is not nationally representa­tive, it has broad geographic coverage; and study families are similar in age and gender of parents, number and ages of children, and race and ethnicity to nationally representative samples of sheltered homeless families. Therefore, it is a good sample for studying the experience of families that have an episode of homelessness. The study followed the families over the next 37 months and surveyed them again 20 and 37 months after random assignment, collecting a rich set of information about changes to the employment, sources of income, use of benefit programs, and further episodes of homelessness.

The analysis conducted for this brief does not use the experimental design of the Family Options Study. Instead, the brief explores the employment, earnings, and income of families during and after a stay in emergency shelter, regardless of the intervention to which their families were randomly assigned. This brief presents results for the 1,621 families who responded to both the 20- and 37-month surveys.

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