For people who are lucky enough to live in a home, homelessness seems like an abstract idea, a form of suffering that afflicts the very poor.  But for 150,000 families who experience homelessness each year and are forced to seek emergency shelter or face life on the street, it’s not abstract. It’s harsh reality.   

For years, researchers have debated the best way to end homelessness. One school of thought believed that homelessness was predominately a consequence of mental illness, substance use, or domestic violence, and inadequate services to deal with these afflictions.   

But new research sheds light on what may seem obvious: especially for families with children, homelessness is largely a question of housing affordability. If we want to end family homelessness, we should provide families with permanent vouchers to live in homes.

The newly released Family Options Study, which gathered evidence about which types of housing and services worked best for homeless families, showed that providing priority access to permanent housing subsidies has a variety of positive benefits – from keeping families out of shelters and off the street to preventing hunger and intimate partner violence and reducing school absences for children. When compared to families who were left to find their own way out of emergency shelter with whatever help caseworkers gave them, families offered a permanent housing subsidy also experienced significant reductions in child separations from parents; adult psychological distress; substance abuse; domestic violence; and food insecurity. Subsidies reduced factors that are often presumed to cause homelessness, as well as ending homelessness itself. 

These findings are striking and provide clear evidence about the best policies to help homeless families. Permanent vouchers for housing cost only 5 percent more over 20 months than leaving families to fend for themselves– and reduced the costs to the families, who experience the long-lasting toll and broad ramifications of homelessness.

Ending the epidemic of homelessness will require breaking down the barriers that have kept housing assistance separate from the homeless services system. Currently, those who control housing assistance do not devote enough of it to targeted programs that could help end homelessness. Housing programs such as vouchers should be used more extensively for people who experience homelessness. And existing resources for housing assistance should be expanded, as President Obama has proposed in this year’s budget.   

Preventing homelessness is complex. We are still struggling with how to identify which poor families and individuals will fall into homelessness in order to mount effective prevention programs.   But we already know that ending homelessness – especially for families – is a challenge of housing affordability that can be remedied. What’s needed are permanent housing subsidies. The benefits of providing them will extend far beyond the walls of the house.

Khadduri is a senior fellow at Abt Associates.  Shinn is a professor at Vanderbilt University.