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Rapidly Rehousing Homeless Families: New York City—a Case Study

Rapid rehousing or "housing first" has been heralded as the answer to ending family homelessness. New York City has the longest history with using rapid rehousing as a tool for placing homeless families into permanent housing. In this opinion brief, ICPH President and CEO Ralph Nunez points to New York City as a case study and takes a critical look at the long-term impact of federally driven rapid-rehousing policies. The brief raises fundamental questions about the effectiveness of rapid rehousing as a solution when it is used in a one-size-fits all manner.

A strategy known as “rapid rehousing/housing first” is currently heralded as the answer to reducing family homelessness. The concept is simple: move families immediately from shelter to permanent housing. The problem is thus solved; these families are no longer homeless. In municipalities and counties across the country, rapid rehousing is being implemented and declared an immediate success despite little long-term evidence to support this conclusion. Nowhere has this policy been practiced on such a large scale and for such an extended period of time as in New York City.

This report examines the model of “rapid rehousing/housing first” using New York City as a case study. It specifically examines the impact of this policy on the city’s shelter system for homeless families, focusing on shelter census, eligibility, and recidivism rates, along with length of stay and overall costs.

New York City Shelters
New York City currently houses more than 11,000 families with more than 20,000 children in city shelters.1 In 2005 the city initiated rapid-rehousing policies based on time-limited rental subsidies to foster permanent independent living for homeless families.2 The prediction was that, after a limited period of time, rapidly rehoused families would become financially secure through employment and be able to maintain their living situations independent of temporary rental subsidies. In other words, instances of family homelessness resulted simply from short-term housing crises, and short-term rental subsidies would solve the problem.

For six years, beginning in the 2005 fiscal year and ending in 2011, rapid rehousing was at the heart of New York City’s effort to reduce family homelessness. Over that period some 33,000 families were moved out of shelter.3 During that same period of time, however, the return-to-shelter rate increased significantly, indicating that lack of housing is not the only reason that people become homeless. Based on those numbers and the length of time the program was in place, it is possible to go beyond the qualitative rhetoric currently supporting rapid rehousing and quantitatively define the successes and limitations of this policy.

Daily Shelter CensusShelter Census
Although designed to reduce family homelessness, rapid-rehousing policies have actually had the opposite effect in New York City. By offering rental subsidies to sheltered families, government actually stimulated homelessness. Numerous families that were living doubled-up or in substandard housing saw an opportunity to secure new housing and entered the shelter system to get places in line. Between FY05 and FY11, when rental subsidies were in effect, the average annual census of families housed in city shelters increased 8%, to 9,480 (see Figure 1).4 Even with the end of rental subsidies, in FY11, the number of homeless families in shelters continued to grow year-over-year: 4.4% in FY12, to 9,895, and 13% in mid-FY13, to 11,182. In all likelihood, families continuing to enter the shelter system are expecting and waiting for a new rehousing initiative to appear. Regardless, if this trend continues, the data projects that there will be more than 12,319 families in shelter by FY14, an additional 10.2% increase.

But why? Beginning here, the unexpected impact of rapid rehousing policies comes into focus.


1 Coalition for the Homeless, “Basic Facts About Homelessness,” (accessed December 14, 2012).
2 From 2005 to 2011 the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) implemented two initiatives that promised to move families rapidly from shelter to permanent housing: Housing Stability Plus (HSP) and Work Advantage. HSP, introduced in 2005, offered a five-year housing subsidy to homeless families and individuals. It was replaced in 2007 with Work Advantage, which provided a subsidy with a strong link to employment and self-sufficiency; New York City Department of Homeless Services, “Housing Stability Plus, Background,” background.pdf; “Budget Cuts To ‘Advantage’ Program Leave New York City Homeless in the Lurch,” Huffington Post, March 20, 2011, (accessed December 13, 2012).
3 New York City Department of Homeless Services, “DHS Critical Activities Report, 2005-2011,” (accessed December 5, 2012).
4 New York City Department of Homeless Services, Critical Activities Report: Family Services, 2002–09; New York City Department of Homeless Services, Critical Activities Report: Adult Families Services, 2010–11; New York City Department of Homeless Services, Critical Activities Report: Families with Children Services, 2010–11; New York City Department of Homeless Services, Daily Report, October 4, 2012.

The Atlas of Student Homelessness in New York City

When a Solution Is Also Part of the Problem: The Complex Relationship Between Public Housing and Family Homelessness

The Invisible Majority: Doubled-up Students in New York City Public Schools

Average Length of Stay for Families in Shelter (NYC—by fiscal year)

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