Changing Lives

National Advocate Works to Keep Families Housed and Whole

Cartoon of woman hugging child, surrounded by four hands grasping different objectsIMAGE: Edel Rodriguez / Theispot

For families in danger of losing their children to foster care because they lack adequate housing, a slender lifeline can deliver a precious solution.

That lifeline is a federal housing voucher from the Family Unification Program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). And perhaps its strongest advocate, whose work helped make $60 million in housing vouchers available nationwide to families and young people in the child welfare system since 2009, is Ruth White (SAS '96).

White, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, is among the nation's top experts working at the intersection of housing policy and child welfare.

The connection is not always recognized—but it should be, White said. "About 30 percent of kids in foster care are there because their families don't have affordable housing," she explained.

White's organization connects child welfare agencies to housing resources to prevent homelessness.

Ruth White, headshot

Ruth White, executive director, National Center for Housing and Child Welfare

Known affectionately as Ruthie, White does her high-impact advocacy in low-key fashion. She runs her organization from her home outside Washington, D.C., where she, her husband and their three children live. She lobbies for funding for new HUD vouchers and for new legislation; trains housing and child welfare experts in how to get resources to families; and provides information to front-line social-service workers on preventing homelessness.

"That comes straight from Case Western [Reserve]—from my group dynamics class, which taught that if you really want to impact a system, you have to work on multiple levels at once," she said.

An adjunct professor at Catholic University of America, she is working toward a PhD in social work there.

Colleagues credit her with keeping the Family Unification Program (FUP) running and funded.

"If it wasn't for Ruth, I don't think there would still be a Family Unification Program," said Betsy Cronin, director of housing development for The Connection, a social-service nonprofit in Connecticut that works closely with White.

FUP vouchers that White pressed HUD to make available have transformed families, said John Cheney Egan, an administrator at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

"There are lives that are just changed forever," he said. "People are not homeless. They're stable; their kids are with them. … What she has done is just absolutely amazing."

White grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where her interest in social work and combating poverty was sparked by her dismay at seeing economically struggling neighborhoods next to wealthy ones.

She was the youngest of 10 children; her father, Robert J. White, MD, PhD, was a well-known neurosurgeon and bioethicist who co-chaired the neurosurgery department at Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine.

At what's now the Case Western Reserve Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, she studied with the late Arthur Naparstek, PhD, a dean and professor who helped create several programs at HUD and brought his students into that world.

"We got to meet with residents; we got to meet with public housing authority executives," she said. "That opportunity was something I don't think I would have gotten at other schools. I am still using that information in my work today."

She worked as a case manager for a Columbus, Ohio, homeless shelter and later as the Child Welfare League of America's lead trainer on securing housing vouchers through FUP. In 2008, she co-founded the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare.

"Our organization is tiny," she said. "But we've trained thousands of case managers, administrators and policymakers nationwide. We are small, but mighty."