Felicia, 15, says people tell her she and her dad argue like an old married couple. He nags her to clean up after herself; she nags him to quit smoking. She has perfect school attendance, she says, because of her father's eagle eye.

It's against this backdrop of domesticity and fastidious parental oversight that Ronald's account of his past is so jarring

There's the dreamlike story Ronald tells of how, in his 20s, shortly after his marriage broke up, he met a truck driver looking for directions to the Piggly Wiggly warehouse, and decided to ride with him from South Carolina all the way to Florida. There are the months he spent in Okala, living in a warehouse once used for storing chickens, lying awake listening to the rats running through the walls at night. There's the year and a half he spent living on the New York City streets, washing up in a Kinko's restroom in the morning, working as a cook all day, and finding a dark spot to curl up in at night.

When Felicia was born, and her mother proved unable to raise her, Ronald's focus became on creating a more stable life for his daughter himself. Then came the day he arrived late from work, found a shelter worker had handed Felicia over to child protective services, failed a drug test, and lost his daughter to foster care.

Eventually, though, that led Ronald and Felicia to Keeping Families Together (KFT), one of the first supportive housing projects in the country created with the primary intent of keeping children out of foster care.

A new model

Supportive housing starts with a simple premise: that it's hard for people to attend to their higher order needs—mental health, sobriety, healthy parenting—when they can't meet basic needs, like housing. It's founded on the idea that if you house people, and connect them to the services they choose rather than mandate services, eventually many of them will find their own way to sobriety and stability. It's a model long used with mentally ill or drug-addicted adults. But supportive housing for at-risk families is new, though studies have long shown that parents who experience homelessness are far more likely to lose their children to foster care than other low-income parents, while one study from the late 1990s showed that a family's chances of child welfare involvement nearly doubled within one year of entering the shelter system.

Run by the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, KFT is home to 26 families, with housing and support services contracted out to six privately operated sites around the city. It's a small enterprise, but it demonstrates the potential benefits as well as the real daily challenges of supportive housing as a way of addressing chronic homelessness and chronic child maltreatment.

These are pressing issues in New York, where more than 22,000 New York City children experience homelessness each night, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, while the 17% of homeless who are chronically so use 50 percent of homelessness resources, according to the Center for Urban Community Services. Adding to the urgency for new solutions, this year the state's Office of Children and Family Services found that within 18 months, 43.6 percent of families reported to child protective services in 2011 were re-reported, while one in six children who returned to family after a stint in foster care returned back to care within 18 months.

This contrasts with the relative stability experienced by families in Keeping Families Together, where all six children in foster care with a goal of reunification when KFT began in 2007 had returned to family for an average of 15 months at the end of the pilot three years later. Three heads of household left KFT voluntarily, in part because they needed more intensive treatment, such as inpatient rehabilitation services to deal with addiction. But those that stayed saw a significant decrease in child welfare involvement. While 13 new cases of abuse or neglect were indicated in the three years after move in, this contrasts to the 46 indicated cases in the three years before.

Moreover, no new children entered foster care as a result of those cases. Elisa Barnes, former counsel for parents in Manhattan's family court and a supportive housing activist, says she believes that's because workers at supportive housing sites can vouch for a family even in the midst of a crisis. As a result, she says, child protective workers and family court judges are less afraid that if they leave a child in a home, "something terrible will happen, or that they'll be the ones who are vilified"—while families have a chance to stabilize their lives without the upheaval of losing their children, which can send families into a further downward spiral. "Even young children, when they reunify, feel like their parents have abandoned them and are angry. It's hard enough for happy, well-adjusted parents when their children are screaming and acting out. It's that much harder for vulnerable parents," says Barnes.

After one year, school-aged children were also attending 25 more days of school per year, on average, according to an independent evaluation conducted by Metis' Associates. Improved attendance did not significantly change academic achievement, with most children still failing to meet state standards in math and English. Nonetheless, attendance, in and of itself, can be an important indicator that children are living lives not marked by chaos, but with a sense of order and stability.

Hard lives

When Keeping Families Together began, the goal was not just to provide housing, but to help parents reverse patterns of suffering and instability that had often started in their own childhoods, and continued.

To be eligible, all families had to have been chronically homeless, have a head of household who was substance abusing or mentally ill, and have children in foster care or at risk of placement. Half the heads of household also reported that their own parents abused drugs or alcohol; almost a third said they'd lost a parent to death or abandonment; more than a quarter reported being sexually abused as children; and more than a quarter said they'd spent time in foster care. As adults, three quarters reported being victims of domestic violence; one quarter said they'd been raped; three quarters suffered from depression; and more than a third said they'd thought about committing or had attempted suicide.