This week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in partnership with Vanderbilt University, released the short-term findings of their Family Options Study, which followed more than 2,000 families experiencing homelessness over an 18 month period. Their research evaluated the effect of several types of interventions on housing stability and the well-being of homeless adults and children. The families in the sample were randomly assigned one of the interventions: housing choice vouchers, community-based rapid rehousing, project based transitional housing, and care as usual. The study found that housing choice vouchers, which grant families permanent subsidies to use in the private housing market, had the greatest effectiveness. While the vouchers were of similar cost or less expensive than the other interventions, they decreased rates of future homelessness, lowered psychological distress and improved mental health. They were also shown to decrease the prevalence of domestic violence. In the six months prior to the survey, families receiving housing choice vouchers had half the incidents of domestic violence as those families receiving care as usual. This result supports earlier HUD qualitative research in which housing subsidy recipients reported that their subsidies helped them escape abusive situations and establish new lives independently.
More effective services are essential to ensure that every domestic violence survivor has the opportunity to access safe housing. In the new HUD study, nearly half of their sample had experienced physical abuse or threats of physical abuse from an intimate partner. Other studies have found even higher rates of violence: one study in Massachusetts found that 63% of homeless women were victims of intimate partner violence. Other studies have found that between 22 and 57% of women become homeless as a direct result of domestic violence or sexual assault.
Although domestic violence survivors make up a disproportionate share of homeless individuals, they do not always receive the services they need. In 2014, a 24 hour census of domestic violence service providers across the country found that although around 36,000 women were receiving residential services, another 6,126 women were turned away in a single day, largely due to lack of funding and limited resources. The ability for survivors of domestic violence to access housing assistance after leaving an abusive situation is critical. Abusers often isolate their victims from social support, so they may not have friends or family who could take them in. In addition, abusers will frequently control their victims finances, limit their access to cash and credit, and prevent them from working, so they may have little or no money available to pay for another place to stay. Without access to shelter, they may have few other options than to sleep on the streets or in their car or return to their abuser. Studies in two different cities found that 44% of homeless women have stayed in abusive relationships because they had nowhere else to go.
The need for improved services and better funding for homeless individuals fleeing domestic violence is clear. Domestic violence survivors need secure, stable housing options to keep them safe from harm and to help them begin to rebuild their lives. Research like HUDs Family Options Study is an encouraging step in identifying innovative and cost-effective methods of enabling housing security and preventing future incidents of domestic violence. While the long-term results of the study will not be released until 2017, these early findings lay the groundwork for smarter housing policies and more informed services for families experiencing homelessness.