Housing Availability an Obstacle to Supportive Housing for San Francisco Families

Homelessness is a national emergency that is particularly acute in San Francisco. In 2012, the Children’s Bureau funded five sites nationally to design and evaluate supportive housing models for homeless, child welfare-involved families. The goal of the five-year demonstration was to test a “housing first” approach to safely reduce the need for foster care, increase housing stability and improve child and family well-being.

San Francisco’s Families Moving Forward (FMF) project aimed to reduce the need for foster care among families identified as homeless when investigated for maltreatment. The project was implemented by the San Francisco Human Services Agency (SF-HSA), with project partners at the Housing Authority and Homeless Prenatal Program (supportive housing case management provider).

What We Did

An evaluation team led by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago studied the effectiveness of FMF using a randomized controlled trial design. Families with in-home (preservation) cases and families with out-of-home (foster care) cases were separately randomized to a treatment group that was offered FMF (n=79) or a control group that received usual service (n=75).

What We Found

  • We found limited evidence that FMF improved child welfare outcomes.
  • Obtaining permanent housing took an average of 10 months and nearly one-third of families left the program before being housed. Ultimately, families in FMF were more likely to become and stay permanently housed than families in the control group. Families with preservation cases were more likely to secure housing than families whose children were in foster care.
  • Parents in the FMF group showed meaningful improvements in family strength and family functioning, residential stability, social connectedness, and substance abuse. Child well-being trended in the desired direction, but improvements were small.

What It Means

The promise of housing, which is central to the housing first approach, was a key element of the program even as it became clear that “housing first” in San Francisco did not mean “housing fast.” While case management and the promise of housing may have contributed to reunification and helped some preservation families stay intact, the housing itself could not have. That said, the absence of immediate housing did not prevent a sizable portion of the treatment group from participating in and benefiting from the intervention. Those that persisted in the program were eventually stably housed and experienced improvements in parental well-being.

These findings call for an approach that accounts for the variation in family needs through more robust systems collaboration.

Families Moving Forward (final report) Families Moving Forward (one-page brief)