Predicting Repeated and Persistent Family Homelessness: Do Families’ Characteristics and Experiences Matter

Publication Date: November 15, 2018
Predicting Repeated and Persistent Family Homelessness: Do Families’ Characteristics and Experiences Matter Cover

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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. This brief, Predicting Repeated and Persistent Family Homelessness: Do Families’ Characteristics and Experiences Matter, explores how demographic characteristics and past experiences of families relate to repeated or persistent homelessness. The brief examines characteristics such as behavioral health, past experiences of sheltered homelessness, and history of foster care placement for the parent as a child. The brief also explores both doubling up and returns to homelessness.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • With the exception of child separation and recent parental unemployment, most family demographic characteristics and past experiences are only modestly related to repeated or persistent homelessness for families with children. Homeless practitioners’ ability to identify families who experience repeated or persistent homelessness improves only slightly if they use 24 family characteristics and experiences rather than randomly choosing among families who have been in shelter for at least seven days.
  • Behavioral health problems and disabilities are rarely related to repeated or persistent homelessness. Families with disabilities who receive disability income may be less likely to have another episode of homelessness immediately following a shelter stay, although this relationship disappears over time and requires further investigation.
  • Only a few past experiences of parents in sheltered homeless families may help practitioners identify families with repeated or persistent experiences of homelessness before or after a shelter stay:
    • Families with parents in shelter who had experienced homelessness as an adult before that shelter stay had a higher chance of becoming homeless again later.
    • Families with parents who had experienced homelessness or foster care placement as a child also were more likely to have experienced repeated or persistent homelessness as an adult before a shelter stay.
  • The family characteristics and experiences that predict another episode of homelessness (i.e., living in emergency shelter or in a place not meant for human habitation) following a shelter stay rarely predict doubling up with another household because a family cannot find or afford its own place.


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.

Of all families in the study, 1,857 provided further data 20 months after their stay and 1,784 provided data 37 months after their stay. Because Family Options Study housing interventions change families’ chances of repeated future homelessness, predictions of repeated homelessness after a shelter stay do not include families that received priority access to any Family Options Study housing intervention. Analyses of repeated or persistent homelessness before a shelter stay include all families who provided data both during the stay and 20 months after the stay, regardless of intervention.

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