Homelessness is inextricably linked to poverty and social isolation. Unless we help the homeless person or family increase their income through training and education and help them establish healthy, reliable social networks to the point where they can afford housing, all of which take time – we are simply playing with the numbers to make ourselves look good.
In an admirable effort to reduce and ultimately end homelessness, communities around the country have embarked on “ten year plans” to end homelessness. They have formed plans with ambitious coordinated designs to lower the numbers of homeless people. In fact, recently some communities have proclaiming success in dramatically lowering the numbers of homelessness. With certain subpopulations of the homeless such as veterans, they have announced success in “functionally ending veteran homelessness”, mostly due to a huge influx of housing choice vouchers earmarked for homeless veterans.
According to the way homelessness is measured, success means: a) fewer street homeless are counted during the once-a-year “Point-In-Time” counts; and b) those placed into homes don’t return to shelters within their locality. Success is elusive because of a lack of support for programs that truly make a difference in the life prospects of people experiencing homelessness.
A major approach promoted by the government to end family homelessness is rapid rehousing. In essence, Rapid re-housing means providing short term subsidies to a homeless family (6 months to a year), along with voluntary services, in the hopes that the family will be able to sustain that housing once the subsidies end. If a family placed in rapid rehousing does not return to shelter within a year or two, they are considered to be successful placements. Most of these families are unable to pay even a third of the cost of their rent on the income they earn, yet the expectation is that within 6 months to a year they will change their fortunes so dramatically that they will be capable of paying the rent by the time the subsidies end.
As a professional in the field of homeless services, I wish that such claims of success were true. Unfortunately, there are many holes in the reasoning behind this methodology. A study conducted of families placed into rapid rehousing in Philadelphia a couple of years ago was issued as proof of rapid rehousing’s success, because few of the families returned to shelters within the city once their subsidies ended. However, a “cause for concern” stated in the study showed that a mere 5% of the families increased their income during the subsidized period. A similar report issued in Fairfax County, Virginia showed that a mere 3% of families increased their income during their subsidized period.
It is a given in today’s government system that homeless families are offered rapidly rehousing because they cannot afford housing on their current income. If they fail to increase their income, it is logical to assume that the vast majority (95% and 97%, respectively) of the families in those studies are at risk of losing their housing once the subsidies end. Should they return to homelessness, the studies do not consider programmatic failure if families return to the streets, move into a shelter in a different jurisdiction, live in dangerous and precarious conditions, or sleep in their car – only if families returned to shelter in their jurisdiction.
It is this odd, bureaucratic view of success and failure that so many professionals on the ground level question. We need comprehensive programming that supports families to achieve increased incomes. Sadly, most studies of rapid rehousing don’t even look at changes to income, even though it would seem empirically obvious to do so.