In 2007, a Commission to End Homelessness was formed and charged with developing a 5 year plan to end homelessness. As the plan was finalized and rolled out, the economy crashed and the foreclosure crisis further depleted the housing stock. The family homelessness crisis expanded to become an unprecedented epidemic. While the recommendations did not account for the magnitude of the economic crash, there was considerable merit to the plan they put forth. Specifically, the Commission’s recommendations focused on a three pronged approach, listed here verbatim:
- Prevention strategies to keep as many people housed as possible;
- Housing placement, subsidy and production responses that result in stable, permanent housing options; and
- Asset development supports that enhance the economic stability of individuals and families-perhaps the most meaningful protection against future homelessness.
Despite the considerable buy in of this prevention-housing-asset development approach, the direction of the Administration shifted to reforming the Emergency Assistance (EA) program. Proposals under this agenda have included: reductions to shelter eligibility, time limits, a reliance on short term subsidies, and cash assistance as an alternative to shelter. The EA reform agenda counteracts the vision set forth in the Commission’s recommendations and dismisses core components needed to successfully end homelessness and create positive systems change.
Disregards Solutions to Homelessness
At the most fundamental level, the focus on EA reform neglects the root causes of our homelessness crisis: a shortage of affordable housing and wages that have not kept pace with rent. As the Commission indicates, the solutions to homelessness are: preventing families from becoming homeless in the first place; having an adequate stock of affordable housing; and supporting families to maximize their internal, external and financial assets to obtain and maintain housing. Focusing reform efforts on the shelter system does not result in progress towards these solutions.
A key theme to successful prevention is developing an early warning system by stopping evictions and having a coordinated and expansive network of resources. The economic downturn has forced more families to the brink of becoming homelessness and provided an opportunity to immediately enact the recommendations to prevent individual cases of homelessness and prevent thousands of families from entering the system. However, EA reform is a post-eviction response for families that are already homeless and therefore not effective at reducing the number of homeless families. For example, the Commission had recommended expanding the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), which works within housing courts to stop evictions, to also include non-disabled heads of households. However, instead of expanding the TPP program, the HomeBASE (Building Alternatives to Shelter Entry) program was developed as part of the EA reform initiative, and therefore families have to meet the EA eligibility standards, including a 48 hour notice to quit, eviction, or date of judgment, thus forcing families to become homeless rather than preventing their homelessness.
The Commission Report outlines four priorities for affordable housing production and access, including: developer incentives for production, increasing the number of vouchers, reducing the barriers to access housing and maximizing extremely low income units. Since the implementation of this plan, there has been little progress towards these goals. Reforming the EA system does not address the housing problems, and as such, the housing problems have grown. Our affordable housing stock is still grossly insufficient and production of extremely low income units remains a fiscal and bureaucratic obstacle course. HomeBASE policies have also created additional barriers to accessing housing by forcing families to go through the eviction process and tainting their housing histories and/or implications on priority status. Recently, a state audit revealed an unacceptable lag time and favoritism to filling units at the Easton Housing Authority, and the media has highlighted similar concerns in housing authorities across the state. If we are to truly implement a housing first approach to homelessness, we must address the issues in housing first. The reliance on the shelter system is a symptom, or result, of the state’s extremely low income housing shortage. Focusing on the symptom can only result in a symptomatic solution. Our goal is to end homelessness, which will require a permanent solution, a solution which must include the housing priorities outlined by the Commission.
Discounts the Roles of Key Stakeholders
The Commission Report acknowledges the need for shelter and service providers to play a key role in new system development, specifically acknowledging their service expertise. However, since the recommendations were released, cuts have led to a reduction of this workforce and an elimination of prevention programs. As new initiatives are rolled out under the umbrella of the Regional Nonprofits, shelter providers, community action programs and others have often been excluded in both the planning and administering of programs. In a time of crisis, where more families are experiencing homelessness than ever before, the approach must be to maximize each stakeholder’s resources, experience, network and role.
When the recommendations were released, the focus was “systems change”. Individual instances of homelessness are often a result of system failures- failures of the housing system, the workforce systems, the education systems, the child protection systems, health care systems, and so forth. Solving homelessness by focusing on the EA system negates the vital role that these other systems must play in stabilizing families and offering opportunities for families to achieve housing and economic stability. The EA reform approach focuses on limiting the number of families who can access shelter. The Department of Children and Families has played a key role in this approach by creating another layer of scrutiny to access the safety net. A systems change approach, on the other hand, would aim to maximize the role of DCF to develop innovative approaches to better support young parents aging out of or overlapping with their system, especially in supporting families as they transition into housing and/or while living isolated in motels.
Similarly, a systems change approach to ending homelessness would call on all state agencies to be accountable for solutions for subpopulations of families that intersect with their systems. The Commission recommended the following as priorities relative to non-housing systems: income maximization resources, school curriculums, and linkages to a continuum of services. EA reform has not maximized the opportunities or leveraged the resources to address these priorities because it is a one silo approach. The EA silo is even evident within the Department of Housing and Community Development and its contracted programs, for example some Housing Authorities are unaware of the HomeBASE program and its policies. In addition there has been limited advancement in enrollment for Family Self Sufficiency Program and other asset development priorities.
Drives Demand in the Wrong Direction
A prevailing theme of the Commission Report was developing a No Wrong Door Policy. Relative priorities included targeting prevention resources in communities determined to be homelessness hot spots; providing access to housing supports through all state agencies; and having supportive programs in communities. Specifically, the Commission recommends programming de-linked to shelter. However, the EA reform approach and the development of the HomeBASE program married housing supports to shelter eligibility. EA reform talking points encourage families to double up, discourage the hope of a long term subsidy, and ask that homeless households rely on their own networks rather than the shelter and housing system. Yet, by having the shelter front door and the regional nonprofits be the primary administrator of flexible cash assistance (RAFT and HomeBASE), community based services have become a wrong door and supports are intrinsically tied to access points for shelter and permanent subsidies. Simply, EA reform implies the EA system is wrong, but puts most of the resources at the front door of the EA system. The result was a 91% increase in shelter applicants during the implementation of EA reform principles. Conversely, a systems change approach would seek to build up resources in communities and across systems so that families would not have to fall into the trap of the shelter safety net.
The Patrick-Murray Administration set an aggressive timeline; the plan boldly declared it would, “succeed in ending homelessness in the Commonwealth by 2013”. This week the Governor signed the FY13 budget. While the number of families in the system has grown to an overwhelming and disheartening number and costs have skyrocketed, there are strengths we can draw upon to move forward in our collective efforts for positive systems change. These strengths include:
- A dedicated workforce who is invested in addressing this crisis
- Different program models, practice approaches and hypotheses which have been tested
- The Administration and Legislature have recently supported incremental investments in housing and prevention programs
Instead of “reforming” the EA system, the focus must be on the EA system-providers and families in it- “informing” the systems that are intended to support families avoid and overcome homelessness. Homes for Families will focus on highlighting best practices from EA programs across the state. It is our hope and our challenge that the Administration will consider these practices and insights and refer back to the recommendations of the Commission and that together we can move forward with an agenda for positive systems change. We will not solve homelessness by the end of 2013, but we can build upon successful programs, learn from policy failures, listen to each other, focus on root causes and holistic solutions and make every attempt to provide the right resources to the right people at the right time.