By Stacy Hennessey
Families become homeless for a variety of reasons. Usually, some kind of crisis such as the loss of a job, domestic violence, or an accident triggers an economic spiral where the family finds itself unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care, and other essentials. Traditionally, communities have responded to homelessness with a wide array of programs ranging from emergency shelters to transitional housing and permanent supportive housing. These programs were funded by a mix of Federal, state, and local government support, along with community philanthropic giving. Since 2009, however, government support has shifted dramatically away transitional housing programs in order to provide greater funding for rapid re-housing.
Rapid re-housing operates on the premise that the first thing a family experiencing homelessness needs is a home without looking at the reasons for the situation. Local agencies serving homeless families place a priority on moving them into permanent housing as quickly as possible, ideally within 30 days. The housing is provided without preconditions such as employment, income, a criminal background check, or sobriety. The home’s lease is in the name of the client family, but the agency provides, on average, four to six months of rent payments along with other financial assistance and case management services. The theory is that case management services can best help a family address the issues that caused them to become homeless once they are in housing. However, the family’s use of case management services is fully voluntary and often nonexistent.
By contrast, Homestretch, a Falls Church City nonprofit that serves homeless families, is a housing model that focuses on long term change. The day a homeless family enters Homestretch, a partnership is formed. They get a key to a home where they will stay for two years but this is just the beginning. Homestretch staff work with them and provides the resources and support to make transformative choices. The goal is to help them acquire education and skills, address health problems, repair their credit, pay off debts, resolve legal problems, improve their language skills, and to enable them to become the authors of their own futures. A rich tapestry of services is provided and required, including intensive case management, an employment center, scholarships for school, ESOL and GED classes, individual tutoring, psychotherapy, domestic violence education and support, parenting classes, money management, debt reduction and savings programs. Each adult is expected to work 40 hours a week or do a combination of 40 hours of work and schooling as part of their plan to significantly increase their earning power. Ten percent of their income is placed into a managed savings account that Homestretch uses to pay down their debt and later to establish a nest egg for when they move into their own home. Homestretch also provides a rich array of services for the children to make sure their needs are fully met.
Homestretch’s results are impressive. The average family increases their income by 147 percent while in Homestretch. In two years they move from being about $5,000 in debt to having $5,000 in savings, a $10,000 trajectory based solely on ten percent of their income. Ninety percent of families entering Homestretch “graduate” into a home they can afford on their own income. More importantly, two or more years after leaving Homestretch 95 percent are still in their homes and working.
There have been few studies of rapid re-housing results, but those that are available are not encouraging. It is easy to understand why. A study in Philadelphia found that half of the rapidly re-housed families were behind in their rent six months after leaving the program, 35 percent were in the eviction process, and only one-quarter were keeping up with their utility bills.
Of all the families in a rapid re-housing program in Minnesota, nine percent returned to a homeless shelter within one year of exiting the program, 16.3 percent within two years, and 20.9 percent within three years.
These disheartening results of rapid re-housing should not be a surprise. After all, advocates for rapid re-housing make clear that it is not an anti-poverty program. Instead, they point out it is a crisis response tool to get people immediately off the streets and into housing. Homestretch, however, recognizes that homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. That is why Homestretch concentrates on moving families out of poverty as the long term solution in homelessness.
For more information on Homestretch, visit homestretchva.org or call 703-237-2035.