Q&A with Ruth White, National Center for Housing and Child Welfare

Ruth White is the Executive Director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare. She works to bring together housing policy and child welfare. Her work shows how children are needlessly held in the foster care system because their parents cannot afford housing. Ruth discusses the connections between affordable housing, parenting, homelessness, and foster care with the HRC’s Wendy Grace Evans.

Visit the HRC Parenting and Homelessness webpage to learn more about the latest research on parenting and homelessness.

Q: Why does homelessness put parents at high risk for losing custody of their children?

In our society, when a parent becomes homeless we automatically question their ability to parent. The best way to help kids who are homeless is to help parents. Housing is absolutely a child welfare issue. We are taking kids away from parents because the parents are poor. The assumption is “you are poor, so your parenting is a problem.”

Q: Can you explain how this happens?

For example, a mother might lose her child to foster care due to a drug problem.  She manages to stop using and is in recovery.  She’s attending parenting classes. But she’s still poor, and cannot afford housing. She will not get her child back. Can you imagine taking parenting classes at a shelter, knowing that even if you gain these skills, it is not going to matter?

My mission is to help solve the housing part of the equation.  The Family Unification Program (FUP) is a tool to help parents who have children in the child welfare system. The FUP helps them to overcome the economic challenge of becoming stably housed. It also helps youth aging out of foster care who are at high risk for homelessness.

Q: What is the Family Unification Program?

The Family Unification Program gives $60 million in Section 8 housing vouchers to families involved with the child welfare system and for youth aging out of foster care. It helps reunify families by building partnerships between public housing and child welfare agencies.

Approximately 500,000 children are in the foster care system. We would save $1.94 billion annually in public money if we were to reunify all the kids in foster care with their parents by giving them Section 8 vouchers for affordable housing with supportive services.

Ninety-seven percent of federal child welfare funding is tied to out of home placement for foster care, rather than funding supports, like childcare, that could help keep families together.

Q: Why is it important that the child welfare and public housing systems work together?

The two systems don’t speak the same language and tend not to talk to each other. We have created training programs to bring together front line workers from the housing and child welfare systems, using the the Child Welfare League of America’s Keeping Families Together and Safe Cross Training Curriculum.

When we piloted it in Maryland, the child welfare workers said “we have all these landlords ready to go, but we don’t have the vouchers.” The housing side said “we have vouchers, but we don’t have families who have an agency advocating for them.”  It’s crucial to bring the two systems together to build relationships and help families.

Visit the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare’s website to learn more about their work to bridge the gap between affordable housing and child welfare.

Publication Date: 
Rockville, MD, USA