Health & Human Services

Stemming the Tide of Homelessness

Last year, when the city of Raleigh, N.C., partnered with Wake County to announce a new program to help homeless families find housing, officials...
by | February 1, 2010

Last year, when the city of Raleigh, N.C., partnered with Wake County to announce a new program to help homeless families find housing, officials knew demand would be high. But the inundation of requests that poured in was shocking. At one of the two nonprofits administering the program, the call volume over the first weekend literally shut down the phone system, which maxed out at 999 voicemails. "They were flooded and had to shut down almost immediately, because they were so overwhelmed" says Joe Rappl, Raleigh's special housing coordinator.

To hire more help, the vendor is now re-drafting its budget from three years to two. And fliers the city and county printed to increase program awareness haven't been distributed - officials fear they'd generate an even greater increase in demand. "There's just always more people than we can handle," says Rappl.

What happened in Raleigh has been happening across the country in recent years. More and more families are becoming homeless, and local governments are struggling to meet their needs. Although the number of homeless individuals has held steady over the past few years, the number of homeless families is on the rise, jumping 9 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The rise is even greater in suburbs and rural areas, where family homelessness increased 56 percent in 2008, according to HUD. More recent data suggest those statistics continued to rise last year. In a December report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 76 percent of the cities surveyed reported an increase in family homelessness in the past year. According to the respondents, many of the middle-class families that previously donated to food pantries are now the ones asking for help.

Cities are responding. They're redoubling their efforts on an approach known as "rapid re-housing," the idea that the best way to help homeless people is to place them in independent, permanent housing as soon as possible. Rather than providing beds in shelters and mandating counseling or other community services, the rapid re-housing approach is based on a simple notion: The cause of homelessness is the lack of housing. That's it. Help someone secure a home, and they're no longer homeless. All other services - job help, childcare, drug or alcohol counseling - can be dealt with more easily once you've moved into your own home, says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "Homelessness is not a lifestyle," she says. "It's a crisis. And we should remedy it as quickly as we can."

Born of the New York City Housing First model pioneered in the early 1990s, rapid re-housing programs have become a major focus in many cities over the past five years. It's not always easy to implement, and it can be hard convincing citizens that this is the best way to handle the homeless population. But now, thanks to the recent spike in homeless families - and a big shift in federal homelessness policy - more and more cities are adopting a re-housing approach. "A systems change is happening," says Roman. "There's going to be a lot of learning over the next year in a lot of places."

The causes behind the rise in family homelessness aren't hard to pinpoint. The housing crisis, the Great Recession and a double-digit unemployment rate have all hit middle-class families hard. But those factors are really only exacerbating a crisis that's been on the rise for three decades, says Barbara Poppe, who President Barack Obama appointed in November as executive director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness - better known as the nation's "homeless czar." Poppe, who previously worked in housing nonprofits for more than 25 years, says that family homelessness has always been something of an issue.

"The homeless population has always been a diverse group of folks," she says. "Even in the early '80s, we saw young families with children, and that pattern continues today. But we are also seeing this new phenomenon, an increase in homeless families directly tied to loss of jobs and the housing market."

Homelessness in America is still concentrated among single male adults, and it's still concentrated in urban areas. But the recent, rapid changes in the demographics of who's on the street are forcing people everywhere to rethink their preconceptions of what homelessness looks like. "There's this media image of the chronically homeless single adult who suffers from a mental disability or a chemical dependency," says Poppe. "But as folks come to grips with the reality of who's struggling with homelessness, they're starting to say, 'Wow, I know those people.'"

Talk to homelessness advocates long enough, and they'll inevitably mention the same place: Hennepin County, Minn., which adopted a re-housing approach for families before just about anyone else. While New York's Housing First model initially focused more on homeless individuals who required ongoing care for disabilities or chemical dependencies, Hennepin's Rapid Exit Program, first implemented in 1993, was targeted on homeless families from the beginning. The county designed the program by interviewing families in homeless shelters and asking what factors were keeping them from moving into their own home. In most cases, it was a purely economic barrier, says Marge Wherley, the county's supervisor for housing and homeless initiatives, adding that they were staying in shelter long enough to save up the $2,000 needed to move into a new place - for things such as a security deposit, moving costs and first and last months' rent. "We were spending $9,000 [to keep them in shelter] so they could save up $2,000," she says. "It didn't make sense."

So the county began targeting funds toward helping families get over those initial obstacles to renting a home. But there was more to it than that: The families reported that landlords were refusing to rent to them, screening them out over concerns that previously homeless tenants were too risky. The solution? Make the landlords a better offer. Hennepin pledged to take care of any problems during the first six months of a tenancy. "We told the landlords, 'If the rent is late, you don't have to deal with it. Call us,'" says Wherley. "'If there's damage, noise complaints, fights, anything - call us. We'll even pay for the court costs if you need to evict someone.'"

The landlords came around. With the county's backing, the homeless families suddenly became relatively desirable tenants. A full 95 percent of them stayed in housing without returning to shelter during at least the first year, Wherley says. "One landlord told us he got into this because he thought it was the socially responsible thing to do, but it ended up being the best business decision of his life."

Today, Hennepin's Rapid Exit Program has revolutionized the way the county manages its homeless population, even as that task becomes a bigger challenge. Last year, Hennepin County saw a 25 percent increase in the number of people entering shelters, but their average length of stay actually went down. "That's totally because of Rapid Exit," says Wherley.

In other places, such as Columbus, Ohio, where Barbara Poppe worked on homeless issues for 15 years prior to her federal appointment, re-housing efforts have actually helped prevent family homelessness before it even occurs. Beginning in the late 1990s, Columbus began working with families in need, placing them in independent housing before they ever even entered a shelter. Initially, the city prevented shelter stays about 40 percent of the time. Today, that figure has risen to 60 percent.

Successes like those in Hennepin and Columbus have driven a change in the federal government's approach to homelessness. For the past decade, the policy in Washington has been targeted on a small slice of the homeless population: individuals who are chronically homeless. Getting those people off the streets may have been a good goal, but it came at the expense of homeless families, for whom the lack of housing tends to be a temporary crisis rather than a chronic issue.

But as the economic downturn has highlighted the increase in family homelessness, the federal government has adopted a policy much more focused on re-housing efforts. The federal stimulus included $1.5 billion to help prevent families from becoming homeless - and to quickly find housing for those who do. And when Congress last year reauthorized the homeless assistance program administered by HUD, the legislation shifted millions of dollars toward preventing family homelessness and funding local re-housing programs.

The shift in federal policy - coupled with the on-the-ground re-housing successes in communities across the country - signals a sea-change in the approach to family homelessness, says Poppe. "It should be a game-changer. We're seeing the second wave of transforming our communities into systems that prevent and ultimately end homelessness."

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