Opening Doors sets a national goal of ending family homelessness by 2020. In one way, this goal is audacious and bold, and in another, it’s too far off—we need to end family homelessness as soon as possible. Each day we do not, children’s lives are torn off-course and their futures are threatened. Homelessness is life-disrupting and potentially traumatizing for anyone, but it is particularly so for children; instability and lack of security can negatively impact children's health, development, and academic achievement.
Unfortunately, in the last Point-In-Time count report, family homelessness was up slightly, 1.4 percent, from the previous year. Find articles covering PIT here. Given that the 2012 PIT followed the deepest point of the recession this slight uptick wasn’t surprising. In fact, family homelessness would almost certainly have been much worse had it not been for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing program, funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which assisted more than 1.3 million individuals and families with prevention and rapid rehousing assistance.
In many communities, HPRP also influenced positive changes in the way homeless systems operate – building lasting new partnerships with mainstream employment, education and child care programs, improving data collection, testing assessment tools, and facilitating the adoption of lighter-touch approaches to rapidly rehouse more family households, like progressive engagement.
Research has helped us understand a lot about homeless families. In most ways they are like other very poor families; the potential range of crises that a low-income family may face, from a medical crisis to job loss to eviction to domestic violence can all lead to housing loss, though only a small number of those that face such crises actually enter the homeless system. We also know that homeless families are often headed by young people, and/or are families with very young children. They don’t have the support systems they need in the moment they face homelessness to help keep them out of it.
Our job then is to address their immediate need for shelter and housing while helping them make the links to other supports, formal and informal, that can support them in the rest of their journey. We may not stop them from being poor, at least not right now, but we can help them achieve the most basic condition of being a family – sharing a home together.
Ending family homelessness poses great challenges. Though the worst of the recession is over, low-income families still face tremendous hardships. Broader strategies, such as an increase in the minimum wage and universal early childhood education, which the President championed in his State of the Union address, would help many low-income families on their road to stability and economic mobility, including those at high-risk of homelessness. Without such changes, low-income families will continue to struggle to make it, and will continue to be at risk for housing loss.
The good news is, we know a lot more now about how to assist families experiencing homelessness and we have many opportunities to use our resources consistent with that knowledge. Rapid re-housing has proven to be tremendously successful with many different kinds of families, typically at a fraction of the cost of long-term shelter stays or transitional housing. While HPRP is no longer available, other resources can be used to create rapid rehousing programs, including TANF, ESG and CoC funds.
In February, HHS released an information memorandum describing the many ways TANF funds may be used to serve and help house homeless and high-risk families. Read the TANF memo. Notably, the practice of using TANF funds to provide one-time or short-term assistance consistent with rapid re-housing programs is an encouraged use of TANF funds.
Many communities have begun converting some of their less cost-effective transitional housing to rapid re-housing models, and are attaching diversion and re-housing resources to family shelters or to the coordinated entry point. Some have figured out how to get other mainstream resources into the equation, such as child welfare funding. Using data to show how much more effective we can be in supporting families to exit homelessness quickly is a strategy that can help glean both private and public dollars.
For the most vulnerable families with histories of repeated homelessness and parents with serious disabilities, well-targeted supportive housing may be needed. Because this resource is so precious, we need to make sure that supportive housing isn’t the fall back for challenged families that can make it without, even if they will need intensive, but not permanent, support.
While family homelessness is a tragedy, the resiliency of so many families is an asset to build on. We must allow families that are homeless the support and the dignity to make it to stability and leave homelessness behind. I am old enough to remember when modern homelessness did not exist, and I will always remember the first person I met who was experiencing homelessness. I would like our children not to have that memory – either of being homeless or of knowing homelessness.
(Photo courtesy of St. Stephen’s Human Services, Minneapolis, Minnesota)