Programs to Eliminate Homelessness Within Reach, But Require Funding

Posted April 8, 2015

MP3 Interview with Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

homelessness

The economic recovery in the U.S. has meant more jobs, lower official unemployment rates, and along with that, a small drop in the number of the nation’s homeless population. According to a new report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the rate of homelessness fell by just 2.3 percent, and the number of people at risk of homelessness has yet to return to pre-recession levels. The downside of the recovery is that housing prices are heading upward again. The federal government defines the homeless as those without a permanent place to live, including those on the street, in shelters, or doubling up with family or friends.

For decades after World War II, homelessness was mostly limited to impoverished areas of inner cities known as "skid row." But when the Great Recession struck in 2008, homelessness spread to include whole families with children, formerly middle-class residents of the suburbs, and many more Americans who were already barely holding their own. On any given night across the U.S., about 154,000 more people were experiencing homelessness than there were beds available to assist them. One problem is that many Americans have come to accept homelessness as a normal part of life, making it harder to imagine ending it.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy, at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Here, he explains the good news and bad news in his group’s recent report, "The State of Homelessness in America 2015."

STEVE BERG: The good news is that, as you said, homelessness is going down. Homelessness is people living on the streets, in places not meant for human habitation or people living in emergency shelters or temporary housing specifically designed for homeless people. The numbers continue to go down. We're always a little ambivalent, because the numbers are still way too high. I mean, there's still more than half a million Americans homeless on any given night. And although there's been investment by the federal government, as well as philanthropy and cities and states all over the country really trying to focus on effective practices that really work to get people out of homelessness, we're still facing a very tough situation, because we see rents starting to go up around the country.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Two successful strategies used quite a bit recently are rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing. Can you explain what each one is, and who would be most likely to benefit from each type of program?

STEVE BERG: Okay, rapid rehousing is an intervention that's designed for people for whom the cause of their homelessness is short-term economic crisis, so it responds to that with a short-term intervention that mainly focuses on their housing situation. It's a program that moves homeless people back into permanent housing as quickly as possible. It usually involves a local non-profit who's getting funded to do this, and they work with landlords to find housing that's available to homeless people. There's some help with the rent; it's usually paying for the security deposit, paying move-in expenses, and paying a few months' rent is pretty typical. Then the third piece is working with the now formerly homeless person to get a job and get whatever other kinds of help they need to stabilize in their situation, with the hope that by the time that several months of rent subsidy is over, they'll be able to afford housing on their own. And it turns out that this works for a very large percentage of homeless people, and it has a lot to do – particularly for families with children – why homelessness didn't really skyrocket during the recession, at least as measured by the number of people in shelters and the number of people on the street.

Well, permanent supportive housing is more designed for people who do have long-term, very severe disabilities, health problems – usually behavioral health problems, people with severe mental illness, which is very common among the homeless population; people who've been homeless and lived on the streets for years and years. And that involves more of a deep, long-term rent subsidy. Often it takes place in housing that's owned by a non-profit specifically for that purpose, although there are other permanent supportive housing models that just rent apartments from regular landlords. But then there is also a program of health care and supportive services to help deal with the very severe disabilities that people have. This, too, has been very effective for that most hard-to-serve group of homeless people – people with severe mental illness who have been living on the streets for a long time.

Sort of against most people's expectations, people like that who move into permanent supportive housing stay housed, and they actually save taxpayers a lot of money, because people like that end up costing taxpayers a lot of money in jails, in emergency mental health treatment, in homeless shelters of course, but then once they're housed, they stop going to jail, they stop going to the emergency room nearly as much, when they're hospitalized they don't stay hospitalized as long, if they've got a place to live. So it's actually a very effective program, makes an incredible difference in the lives of the people who are being rescued from the street and saves taxpayers money. It's hard to imagine what could be better.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Have funding cuts really impacted efforts to address homelessness?

STEVE BERG: Actually, even despite the overall cuts in spending we've seen the last few years, the people in Congress who make decisions about how to allocate those cuts, they've actually tried to make sure that the homeless programs don't take a hit. The one year, 2013, which was the very worst year for funding cuts, the homeless programs did take a hit there, did get cut there. But mostly they're staying level, but that's frustrating, because these programs are working so well, and we see if there was a small increase in funding to actually meet the need, we could end homelessness pretty easily and pretty quickly, but just keeping the programs level-funded is not quite enough to do that.

For more information on the National Alliance to End Homelessness and to access a copy of the "State of Homelessness in America 2015" report, visit endhomelessness.org.

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