PHAs:  Key Partners in Opening Doors Implementation

PHAs:  Key Partners in Opening Doors Implementation

The Commons at Buckingham: Permanent Supportive Housing in Columbus, Ohio

Opening Doors represents a dramatic shift in the federal government’s approach to homelessness.  It’s based in part on the recognition that solving homelessness requires that people access the mainstream resources available to them–including income supports, health insurance, and housing assistance–both efficiently and sufficiently to meet their needs.  Targeted homeless assistance programs always have been and always will be a significant part of the solution–but they are not the entire solution.

As communities across the country are certainly all too well aware, HUD McKinney-Vento resources are largely tied up in renewals of existing programs, limiting the ability to create new units and new housing opportunities.  A comparison of communities’ Housing Inventory Charts (HIC) to their Point in Time (PIT) figures confirms that significant unmet need remains.  While Continuums of Care will need to continue to find ways to improve the performance and efficiency of existing programs, we must, at the same time, identify ways to increase the country’s permanent supportive housing pipeline and improve targeting of housing subsidies.  Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) are central to this effort.

Five Actions PHAs Can Take in the Next Year

There are a number of ways PHAs can be involved in their community’s efforts to prevent and end homelessness.  Here are five actions PHAs can take in the coming year:

1. Be at the Planning Table. 

The reality is – particularly in our current economy – many households are one crisis away from homelessness. As more and more Americans fall below the poverty line, there are more Americans competing for the same jobs, and more Americans competing for limited affordable housing units.  Need is growing, while the stock of affordable housing is shrinking.  There is a very thin and fragile line separating those that are housed and poor from those experiencing homelessness; there is significant fluidity among these groups.  If the nation is going to tackle this problem in a strategic and cost effective way–everyone that administers housing assistance needs to be at the community planning table together.  In some communities, such as Fresno, PHAs are actually leading efforts to develop and implement plans to end homelessness.

2. Help Build Your Community’s Permanent Supportive Housing Pipeline Through Conversion to Project-Based Vouchers. 

Developing permanent supportive housing requires a capital investment, service dollars, and an ongoing rent subsidy, but identifying resources for the rent subsidy can often be a challenging part of assembling the financing package.  PHAs can contribute to the permanent supportive housing pipeline in their community by converting housing choice vouchers to project-based vouchers.  (HUD allows PHAs to convert up to 20 percent of their allocation.)  There are a number of PHAs around the country that have developed some fantastic projects through project-basing – including King County (WA) and Columbus (OH) – just to name two.  Due to the level of on-site support provided, many PHAs have found this to be a particularly effective model for serving individuals/households with disabilities and long histories of homelessness.

3. Adopt and Sustain a Commitment to Deep Targeting.

This is easier said than done, particularly in a time of significant cuts to PHA administrative budgets.  Yet, extremely low-income households face the most barriers to adequate and stable housing. To make progress in ending homelessness, there needs to be a strong commitment to targeting households with the greatest need and those who, without such assistance, are most likely to become and remain homeless.  This is when it becomes particularly important to take a holistic, community-wide perspective of the costs and benefits of either serving or not serving these vulnerable households.  From the perspective solely of the PHA, it may be hard not to focus on the costs to the agency and all reasons why serving extremely low income and vulnerable households can be difficult.  But, when viewed from the perspective of a community leader, housing advocate, or even public taxpayer, it becomes harder to ignore the broader costs to the community of not targeting those with the greatest needs.   So, consider whether a local preference for households experiencing homelessness (or chronic homelessness) is feasible.  If you already have a homeless preference, consider using the same definitions used by your local Continuum of Care programs to ensure deeper targeting and greater systems coordination.

4. Review and Retool Administrative Procedures – Particularly for VASH.

Over the years, many PHAs have developed policies and procedures that are inadvertently challenging to households without a permanent address or that disproportionately impact persons experiencing homelessness.  Consider your application policies and procedures through the eyes of an applicant:

  • How many trips to the PHA are required?
  • What type of documentation do you require; is all of it necessary?
  • How do you communicate with applicants (particularly those that do not have a permanent mailing address)?
  • Are there changes you could make to the workflow to assist applicants and accelerate processing time? 
  • Can steps be done concurrently instead of sequentially?
  • Is there a way to share information across public agencies more efficiently?

While there may need to be a streamline processes across PHA programs, examine your local VASH program procedures in particular.  PHA staff may be interested in reading about the VASH experience in Washington, DC, where program administrators were able to reduce the amount of time required to get clients housed by approximately six months by developing some important new partnerships and re-sequencing the steps in their process.

5. Review Your Admissions Policies.

Many PHAs have overly stringent requirements related to criminal history that extend far beyond the Federal requirements.  Sometimes this is due to local philosophy, but often it is a misinterpretation of Federal rules.  (See a recent letter from HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan to PHA Directors clarifying HUD rules.)  Many individuals that have experienced homelessness end up with a variety of petty crimes on their record – e.g., trespassing, theft, public intoxication, disorderly conduct.  Several studies note that when people experiencing homelessness are incarcerated, it is more likely in jails (typically for lower-level crimes) than in prisons (typically for felons).  However, PHA policies regarding criminal history are sometimes one-size fits all.  As Secretary Donovan urges, PHAs should consider whether there might be a more reasonable middle ground that balances the need for resident/public safety with the important role that housing plays in stabilizing vulnerable individuals and reducing recidivism rates.

USICH understands that each community faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities, and that each PHA has a different set of resources and constraints.  Simply put, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.  Yet, many PHAs around the country have emerged as strong leaders in their communities’ efforts to prevent and end homelessness.  They have analyzed their data, forged new partnerships, and designed programs to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.  In order to achieve the goals of Opening Doors, other PHAs need to join them.