Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: How to Judge Success When Helping Homeless Families

By Christopher Fay

The common mantra among providers of housing and services for the homeless is “the solution to homelessness is housing.” Another common saying is, “we are in the business of housing the homeless, not ending poverty.” The purpose of “Housing First,” the current methodology promoted by federal, state, city, and county governments, is to place homeless individuals into homes with the fewest barriers to keeping those homes. Barriers include having to pay rent, remain clean and sober, or pursue training or employment. This method was first adopted to help chronically homeless single adults, many of whom have serious mental disorders, often combined with addiction, that make them especially hard to help. These individuals often cycle in and out of emergency rooms, shelters, and jails, all of which are very expensive yet have little impact on stabilizing the individuals. Housing them while asking nothing in return seemed cheaper than the endless costs of cycling in and out of expensive institutions. It proved successful by lowering overall costs to society and modestly improving the health of the chronically homeless individuals.

The variant of Housing First used for housing homeless families with children is called “rapid rehousing,” which, like housing first for individuals, assumes that it is a “barrier” to ask anything of the families in exchange for housing. Except for one important distinction: The rental subsidies are short term, typically three, six or nine months, at the most a year. The presumption is that the family will use those few months to do whatever they can to increase their income so that once the subsidies end, they can take on the full cost of rent and utilities. Services are offered to the families, but they are not required to access them. While Housing First gives perpetual subsidies to homeless individuals, rapid rehousing expects families to achieve self-sufficiency quickly.

Rapid rehousing is being hailed by advocates as a resounding success. Why? Because the numbers of rapidly rehoused families returning to shelter in the same jurisdiction are relatively low; usually around 20-25 percent.

However, many homeless providers challenge this concept of success. Let’s examine the theory closely. To qualify for rapid rehousing, a homeless family must be homeless and income qualified. To income qualify, you cannot afford the rent on your own. Most qualifying families earn 20-50 percent of the area median income, which means the rent is well beyond their means. Rent for a family of four in Fairfax County averages $2,000 a month or $24,000 a year, often more than the annual income for a homeless family of four. The principle for determining affordability is to pay no more than a third of your income for housing. This means a family of four earning $24,000 a year must triple their income in less than a year to assume the complete cost of rent and utilities.

All available evidence suggests that this does not happen. Not even close. A study of rapid rehousing in Philadelphia showed that a mere 5 percent of families in rapid rehousing programs increased their incomes. Unfortunately, tracking income of families in rapid rehousing is not a mandated activity by government funders so our available data is incomplete. But in jurisdictions where income has been tracked for families in rapid rehousing, the evidence is clear: A mere fraction can afford the full rent and utilities once the subsidies end. Independent research by reputable organizations like the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH) in New York City has been raising the alarm about this for the past few years, noting that simply because a family does not immediately return to shelter in the same jurisdiction does not mean they have not returned to homelessness. They could be on the streets, living in their car, or in a shelter in a different jurisdiction. In some places, like Washington, D.C., the numbers of homeless families have increased substantially under this model.

The truth is – and this is the Homestretch approach – to end a family’s homelessness, you must address their poverty. Our aim at Homestretch is to help the families increase their income, reduce their debt, build their savings, acquire new skills or education, and stabilize their health, so that they can eventually move into housing that they can afford on the income they earn. Does this take more than a few months? Yes. Typically, it takes two or more years. But it is worth it if you ask our graduates, who have become nurses, teachers, accountants, pharmacy techs, dental hygienists, pastors, realtors, commercial drivers, day care owners, store managers, master plumbers, mortgage brokers and more. One recent graduate became a licensed pharmacist. Finally, outcome studies conducted by local universities on the success of Homestretch graduates show that over 90 percent remain housed and employed two to five years after leaving our care.

Now that is success.

Christopher Fay is the executive director of Homestretch, a non-profit that empowers homeless parents to reach self-sufficiency