Homelessness Defeating it proves elusive

September 1, 2015       The NonProfit Times      

Though the national homeless population has declined in recent years and several major cities have seen huge successes, many metropolitan areas are still seeing increases of people on the streets, according to the agencies charged with addressing the homeless crisis.

Several factors cause the discrepancy, including regional unemployment rates and rental markets. The correct approach to assistance is key, according to those closest to the crisis. “The cities that are doing the best are putting money on the table to help with the rent, and, once people are housed, help them with services to keep them stable,” said Steven Berg, vice president for programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C. “They are using the resources they have to get people quickly from homelessness into housing.”

San Francisco, Houston and New Orleans are a few cities where the governments and nonprofits are successfully following the rapid re-housing model. The number of homeless families in those cities has dropped rapidly, Berg said.

Meanwhile, New York City and Los Angeles have seen increased populations. In New York City, homelessness has risen drastically during the past five years, at a rate of nearly 10 percent per year. It has gone from an average of 7,400 homeless adults per night in 2009 to more than 13,000 adults per night now, according to The Coalition for the Homeless there, which blames the crisis on a limited scale of supported housing.

The short-term approach is necessary and has met with great success, according to Berg. “Rapid re-housing,” is the term given to models of short-term rental assistance coupled with support services.

Permanent supportive housing is another approach, usually most successful for those who have long-term disabilities, making employment difficult even in cities with lower unemployment rates. “Many recover, get treatment and they pay the rent themselves,” Berg said. “It does happen.”

The vast majority of homeless individuals are able to find work and sustain themselves shortly after receiving the rapid re-housing, Berg added. “Most people’s emergency and crisis is caused by not having enough money to pay rent,” he said. “What makes it hard to get a job is that they’re homeless. Many people get rapid re-housing and they get a job soon after and then they’re paying the rent.”

Berg’s National Alliance works collaboratively with the public, private, and nonprofit sectors and provides data and research to policymakers and elected officials. It has a network of more than 10,000 partners.

Supporters of the short-term approach point to cost savings for taxpayers if additional, supportive housing is created to meet the demand in their cities and states. The cost of institutional care and shelter expenses will be reduced dramatically, they claim. People living in supported housing are also less likely end up in emergency rooms and jails, supporters have noted.

Though the overall number of homeless individuals has decreased nationally by 2 percent in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, much improvement is still needed. In New York, the Coalition for the Homeless is pressing for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to create sufficient supportive housing in the city and state through the pending NY/NY IV agreement. The state and city of New York have jointly funded more than 14,000 units via three previous agreements since 1990.

The Coalition’s most recent report estimates that 35,000 permanent supportive housing units are needed in New York during the next decade — 30,000 units in New York City and 5,000 units in other localities. The Coalition predicts a taxpayer savings of $1.3 billion during the first decade for 30,000 units.

A notable growth in the homeless population was also noted in several other larger metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles and Chicago, while some cities, such as San Francisco, have increased funding toward supportive housing and seen their homeless populations decline in recent years.

It’s the support that’s critical, according to Berg. “That is what the homeless services system has done really well over the years,” he said.

The City of San Francisco took on a “Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness” in 2004 and last year reported significant reductions in its homeless population. Since 2009, the number of chronically homeless in San Francisco declined by about 51 percent, from 4,039 to 1,977 in 2013.

The city has created 2,699 new units of permanent supportive housing for adults, seniors, families and transition-aged youth. Additionally, 407 units are planned for opening by 2017. Down the California coast to Los Angeles, there was a 16 percent increase in the number of homeless men, women and children reported by the city-county agency charged with assessing the homeless situation there.

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which released the figures in its biennial Homeless Count conducted this past January, Los Angeles County, excluding Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach, had 41,174 homeless people in 2015, compared to 35,524 in 2013.

In Chicago, The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless reported that the Windy City had 138,575 homeless people living within its borders last year, a 19.4 percent increase since 2013 with the expectation that the problem will grow. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ “2014 Survey on Hunger and Homelessness,” Chicago’s community needs are expected to increase in coming years but “resources to provide emergency shelter are expected to continue at about the same level.”  NPT

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