By Ralph da Costa Nunez
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
For more than a decade, policymakers and practitioners have waged a feisty debate over which strategy is most effective for rehousing homeless families: to deliver housing and support services while at an emergency shelter or in project-based transitional housing to address the reasons why a family became homeless, or to almost immediately place a family (sometimes with though often without a housing voucher to subsidize rent) through a strategy called ‘rapid rehousing’ which provides services upon request once in housing. A few years ago the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) commissioned a three-year study to get to the bottom of this question. Perhaps not surprisingly, the recently released and much-anticipated midpoint results of the Family Options Study did not yield strong, much less conclusive results about which rehousing strategy is most effective. However one thing is clear, for many families rapid rehousing resulted in a rapid return to homelessness.
Before any data existed to prove the point, rapid rehousing was touted as a low-cost, common sense, humane approach to ending family homelessness. It fostered the wishful belief that once families were rehoused their homelessness would end. Thus far the data — collected in 12 cities from 2,300 participant families — shows that rapid rehousing does not prevent future episodes of homelessness. Should anyone be surprised? From its inception, rapid rehousing was nothing more than a voucher and a shallow promise. The true cost was wasted time and squandered resources — particularly for those who were unprepared to manage the responsibility of scarce vouchers. This force-fed strategy squandered hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been better used to deliver education and employment training to heads-of-household and increase their likelihood of maintaining housing in the long run. Worse, it resulted in educational set backs for countless children who found themselves uprooted from both home and school yet again.
Rapid rehousing advocates take credit for a modest decline in the numbers of homeless families living in shelter as part of the annual January point-in-time counts. But ask the mayors of, or shelter operators in places such as San Francisco, New York, Cleveland, or Washington D.C. and they will tell you that while the number of shelter beds are holding steady or declining, the actual number of children and their families without a regular place to live is growing. What they will also tell you is that after the years of advocacy and denied requests, the likelihood that HUD will increase the number of housing vouchers necessary to bolster the rapid rehousing strategy and end homelessness is, at best, slim.
Homelessness can trace its roots to the Reagan Administration. The severe reduction or outright elimination of housing programs benefiting the poor and public works programs like the Comprehensive Employment Training Act resulted in this new American poverty we know today as family homelessness. Ask any front-line service provider and they will tell you that it is a poverty that has less to do with the need for housing than it does with domestic violence, poor education, lack of job skills, foster care, mental health, and the skills necessary to retain stable housing.
Nonetheless, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rapid rehousing does works for some families. This is especially true for those with histories of housing stability who became homeless due to some singular event such as a medical crisis or unemployment. In these cases everyone wins: the children, the family, the shelter provider, and the taxpayer. But for the majority of homeless families who constantly struggle with multiple manifestations of chronic poverty, rapid rehousing will not likely yield success. Those families need much more than a one-size-fits-all approach.
The most useful conclusion that can be drawn at this point from the Family Options Study is that effective public policy must account for the intricacies of the population it aims to serve. The development of sustainable public policy is an incremental process that takes time and honest analysis. Data collected as part of the Family Options Study must be examined comprehensively and over time. Those who have advocated to stay the singular course of rapid rehousing have selectively used study data to bolster their argument. That is not public policy—that is ideology. Learning what works for whom, when, why, and how is complicated. But ultimately, it is the implicit responsibility of those vested in reducing family homelessness once and for all.