Panel Paper: How Do Housing Interventions for Families Experiencing Homelessness Affect Child Well-Being?

Friday, November 3, 2017
Wright (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Scott Brown and Marybeth Shinn, Vanderbilt University

A key question in homelessness and housing policy is whether helping families access stable and adequate housing has radiating effects on child well-being. Recent research indicates potential dose-response effects for subsidized housing, with significant impacts on outcomes in adulthood emerging for children who spent more time in assisted housing (Andersson et al., 2016) and in better neighborhoods (Chetty et al., 2015). These findings coincide with increased attention to developmental sensitivity in impacts of poverty and housing on child outcomes (Huston & Bentley, 2013; Leventhal & Newman, 2010), which have largely gone unexamined in the literature on homelessness and child outcomes (Cutuli & Herbers, 2014).

The Family Options Study, an experimental study of housing interventions for families experiencing homelessness, found long-term impacts of permanent housing subsidies on housing outcomes, family economic stress, and child well-being outcomes 37 months after families entered a homeless shelter. However, causal mechanisms linking impacts of housing programs to impacts on child well-being and whether these vary by children’s age have not been explored. Research on poverty, housing, and child development that suggest effects are likely to be indirect through impacts on proximal contexts of development, such as family and school settings (Huston & Bentley, 2013; Leventhal & Newman, 2010). This paper will provide policy evidence on whether and how housing affects child well-being in contexts of deep disadvantage by using 37-month data from the Family Options Study to test causal hypotheses about experimental impacts on housing and economic stressors and child well-being and whether results vary across children’s age.

The Family Options Study randomly assigned 2,282 families in emergency shelters across 12 communities to priority offers for one of three housing and service interventions—1) permanent housing subsidy, 2) short-term rental subsidy, 3) project-based transitional housing, which provides psycho-social services—or to usual care, continuing to work with shelter staff to find housing. Study analyses will use the 37-month follow-up sample with 1,784 families (78.2% response rate) and 2,471 sampled children aged 3 to 17 at follow-up, using non-response weights to obtain results representative of the full study sample.

We first examine intent-to-treat impacts of each housing intervention on individual educational, behavioral, and physical health domains as well as on a latent categorical variable that profiles child well-being across these domains using latent class analysis. (Research using 20-month follow-up data indicated significant heterogeneity with two-thirds of children age 8-17 displaying resilience across domains and one-third of children displaying elevated risk across domains). We then test putative mediators of intervention effects via impacts on housing and economic stressors via associations with family processes and school contexts. We also test a hypothesis that transitional housing has direct impacts on parental distress and family processes through provision of psycho-social services. Implications of results for policy interventions targeting distal housing and economic stressors and putative mediators will be discussed.