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The Support That Homeless Families Need

An innovative housing program demonstrates that keeping families together and their kids out of foster care can pay big dividends.

Last December the New York Times published "Invisible Child," a five-part series chronicling the everyday hopes, dreams and struggles of an 11-year-old girl named Dasani who lived for three years in a single room in one of Brooklyn's most decrepit homeless shelters with her parents and seven siblings. The articles illustrated, in heartbreaking detail, the isolation and lack of support that children in chronically homeless families typically experience.

Here's another story, about another girl, Felicia, who also lives in Brooklyn. Like Dasani, Felicia is full of promise. And like Dasani, her youngest years were marked by chaos and adversity: a mother who abandoned her shortly after her birth, three foster-care placements and two years living in a homeless shelter with her father, who struggled with drugs.

But unlike Dasani, Felicia and her dad got help from a supportive-housing pilot program called Keeping Families Together (KFT) that enabled them to establish a permanent home in a subsidized apartment. There, with the help of an on-site case manager, Felicia and her father have flourished. At 15, Felicia is doing well in high school and thinking about college and a career in law enforcement. Her father, Ronald, is drug-free, has a good job that provides benefits and is a constant, positive presence in his daughter's life.

By investing in supportive housing for families, government officials across the country can create more success stories like Felicia's -- and save money.

Families that struggle with intergenerational poverty, chronic homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness are among the toughest cases in the child-welfare system. Despite these complex challenges, staying with their parents would be the best outcome for many children -- if their parents could get the support they need to raise them in better environments than the ones in which the parents themselves typically grew up.

But the child-welfare system alone is ill-equipped to serve families in this way. It is designed to remove children from dangerous situations, which may mean placing them in foster care. Yet kids who grow up in the foster-care system are at high risk for a range of troubling outcomes, including crime, teen pregnancy, drug addiction and suicide. In New York City, approximately 20 percent of youth who age out of foster care enter the homeless-shelter system within three years.

From 2007 to 2009, the KFT program in New York City provided 29 families like Felicia's with a safe, permanent place to call home, along with the services and support they needed to stay together. It harnessed the resources of multiple public agencies and service providers -- including those involved in child welfare, mental health, substance abuse, public assistance, housing and job training -- to treat each family as a whole.

The results were dramatic. At the end of two years, the housing retention rate was a remarkable 91 percent. School attendance among KFT children increased from 66 percent to exceed 80 percent. By the end of the pilot, there were no child removals from the KFT families, and the number of open child-welfare cases had fallen by 61 percent.

What's more, the evaluation estimated that KFT saved the city nearly $1.9 million over two years in reduced shelter and crisis-services use.

In 2012, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the nonprofit CSH to run the KFT pilot, partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey Family Programs and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation to jointly fund an expansion initiative beyond New York City to five sites in other places to demonstrate how supportive housing can stabilize highly vulnerable families and keep children out of the foster-care system.

It is our hope that this type of intervention will become mainstream practice. No child should be left, like Dasani, to raise herself amid chaos and deprivation.

Nancy Barrand is a senior adviser on program development at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Nancy Barrand is a senior adviser on program development at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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