Archive for July, 2009

23rd July
written by naehblog

Early last week, the staff at the Alliance had a messaging meeting where a staff member shared with us the frustrations of people he’s been meeting on the field. With the recession in high gear and people in dire need of help, why – advocates and providers asked – why were we not endorsing the rapid construction of temporary shelters?

And then I saw this article on my good friend Shannon’s blog.

So I thought the timing was right to ask: Why Housing First?

But first: What is Housing First?

Housing First is a concept that was pioneered by Dr. Sam Tsemberis of the NYU School of Medicine and an organization in New York called Pathways to Housing.

The premise of the Housing First campaign is the housing is a basic human right and should not be denied to anyone, regardless of their habits or circumstances. Housing First prescribes providing the homeless permanent supportive housing – which includes supportive services coupled with permanent housing (not shelter). The supportive services address addiction, mental health, case management and the like, and provides stability for homeless individuals. These services increase the ability of homeless individuals to maintain permanent housing and achieve self-sufficiency.

It’s important to note that this approach is a significant departure from the traditional way the country approached homelessness before. In the old system, homelessness management was emphasized through shelter, mental health services, medical services, and the like before permanent housing was even considered an option. The premise of this old program was that homeless people had to “earn” permanent housing – an unintentionally patronizing framework. Housing First, as the name suggests, emphasizes housing first, coupled with services, bypassing shelter altogether.

Why Housing First?

Put simply: it works. Studies have shown that those communities who implement Housing First strategies have successfully helped people achieve self-sufficiency and get out of homelessness.

In May of this month, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story about some of the successes the Housing First model has seen in the last few years:

“To cite two: 85 percent of formerly homeless adults have maintained a permanent home after five years in the organization Beyond Shelter’s housing-first program in Los Angeles. And in Pathways to Housing’s program for formerly homeless people with psychiatric disabilities in New York City, 88 percent have been able to maintain a permanent home, compared with only 47 percent of the residents in the city’s traditional program.”

In fact, between 2005 and 2007, the nation saw a nearly 30 percent decrease in the chronic homelessness population, much of which has been attributed to the Housing First approach.

Not only does it work, but it’s cost-effective for the chronically homeless population. While people tend to shy away from the Housing First model over claims of high overhead costs, it turns out to be much more cost-efficient in the long run that temporary shelter.

Consider the cost of the average chronically homeless person in an urban area – say, New York City. Between accessing government services, emergency care at hospitals, run-ins with law enforcement, incarceration, and the like – the cost of an average chronically homeless to the state is quite high. Higher, it turns out, than permanent supportive housing – which would not only provide the chronically homeless person the services he/she needs to better their well-being, but remove them from the streets altogether and place them in stable housing.

(I’ve cited this story before, but Malcolm Gladwell, of Blink, Tipping Point, and Outliers fame, wrote a story demonstrating just that called “Million Dollar Murray”.)

Housing First is a definitive, effective, and significant step for a systemic change in the way we approach homelessness – one that has been embraced by advocates and elected officials alike.

And that’s why Housing First.

For more about the Alliance’s take on Housing First – check out our website.

21st July
written by naehblog

Today, the Director of the Homelessness Research Institute – M William Sermons – attended the National Governor’s Association’s Center for Best Practices’ “Expert’s Roundtable: Helping Families Recover from Foreclosure through Economic Opportunities and Family Supports.”

He was invited to present findings from a report he co-authored earlier this year about the relationship between foreclosure and homelessness. The report – Foreclosure to Homelessness: The Forgotten Victims of the Subprime Crisis – examines how much foreclosure has contributed to rising homelessness rates, and specifically, the rise in numbers of homeless families.

The study went like this: surveys were distributed to direct service providers. These included emergency shelter providers, transitional shelter providers, food assistance programs, and the like. These surveys asked providers to determine how many people they were experiencing homelessness as a result of foreclosure. (A copy of the survey administered is available in the appendix of the full report.)

The results were mixed.

Certainly, a majority of people said that at least some of their clients were homeless as a result of foreclosure – about 80 percent.

But the median percentage of clients that were affected was far smaller. Housing providers (including emergency, transitional, and permanent housing providers) estimated that five percent of their clients experience homelessness due to foreclosure; all respondents (including those who don’t provide housing assistance) estimated that ten percent of their clients experienced homelessness as a result of foreclosure.

But perhaps the most telling finding in the report is that in the narrative of foreclosure to homelessness, it’s mostly renters that are affected. In his presentation, Bill noted that the ratio of homeowners to renters facing homelessness was about 4:1.

This reinforces the idea that while foreclosure may play a role in the rise in homelessness, the leading factors that contribute to homelessness among families stay consistent even in this economic turmoil: unemployment, lack of affordable housing, job loss – these are all the staple causes of homelessness and continue to persist as primary causes.
This theme was not lost on the small group of experts that came to discuss our role in assisting families through the economic downturn. Representatives from the National Governor’s Association, the Center for American Progress, the Urban Institute and the Pew Charitable Trust were among the organizations represented at the table to discuss the issue at hand. The day-long meeting, which included presentations focused on available data and best practices, concluded with a discussion about “key components of a state strategy to help families recover from foreclosure” and a discussion examining what it will take for “states to put this strategy into action”.

The full report, Foreclosure to Homelessness: The Forgotten Victims of the Subprime Crisis, is available on our website.

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20th July
written by naehblog

I know news roundup is on Fridays, but I couldn’t let this one pass.

It’s a great game of chance, skimming the morning’s news for coverage on homelessness.

It ranges all over the place: features on cities dealing with housing challenges,(often in our own DC), comprehensive, well-crafted analyses about public housing policy , news from other countries starting ten year plans, and features about activists raising awareness on the issue.

Some of it is great, some if it is not so great, it really depends on the day.

But sometimes – just sometimes – it’s just out of left-field.

Last week, the Nation published a story called, Ten Things You need to Know to Live on the Streets.

Evidently, the article is the brainchild of Nation editorial board member Walter Moseley and a grassroots, social justice organization founded and led by homeless people called Picture the Homeless.

In truth, my initial reaction was confusion – followed by more confusion, distaste, and more confusion. To be counseling people on how best to live on the streets, it seemed to me, was to be missing the point entirely .

And then there are some points that come off just patently patronizing:

  • Be prepared to be blamed for your circumstances, no matter how much they may be beyond your control. Think of ways to disabuse the public of common misconceptions. Don’t internalize cruelty or condescension. Let go of your pride–but hold on to your dignity.

  • The First Amendment protects your right to solicit aid (panhandling), especially if your pitch or sign is a statement rather than a request. To succeed, be creative, funny, engaging (“I didn’t get a bailout!”). Find good, high-traffic spots where the police won’t bother you.

All productive political discourse must necessarily make room for a variety of perspectives – only through the inclusion of different ideas and approaches are we able to come to a fully informed, thoughtful conclusion on what can be done to solve the problem at hand: in our case, homelessness in America.

But this article seems to focus on just what we’re trying to avoid: management of the homelessness crisis and not a solutions to it. While it’s a clever and creative approach, it doesn’t shift the conversation to talking about data-drive, evidence-based, solutions to ending homelessness – but rather, presents ways to only perpetuate the problem.

But it’s interesting reading, nonetheless. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that opintion: it’s one of the most popular articles on right now.

Check it out – and let me know what you think

17th July
written by naehblog

Welcome to another edition of the Friday news roundup!

So, in the news: aftershock of the AHAR report, rising veteran homelessness, and – evidently – a survey of the cities that are “meanest” to homeless people.

But one article in particular stood out to me – and it has nothing to do with reports, veterans, or mean cities.

It has to do with a little bill called SEVRA: the Section 8 Voucher Reform Act.

Section 8 is a housing assistance program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

It works like this:

  • You’re a low-income family, and you qualify for Section 8.
  • You go out and find an apartment that works for you.
  • You pay 30 percent of your household income towards your rent and your local public housing authority takes the money that HUD gave them to cover the rest.

A couple caveats:

  • You have to qualify for public housing assistance
  • You can’t pick a crazy-expensive apartment, and
  • The apartment has to meet HUD quality regulations.

The goal of Section 8 is to give low-income families more housing options, that is, outside the limits of public housing. The Section 8 program assists more than 1.4 million households with housing costs. For more on Section 8, check out the HUD website.

Of course, like all federal programs, Section 8 has it’s problems.

For one, there’s a HUGE waiting list for most Section 8 programs. Last year, the Washington Post reported that 57,000 families were on the Section 8 wait list in the District alone. What’s more, there’s some controversy over how much Section 8 money goes where. HUD decides who gets what (that is, how much money Philly gets for the Section 8 program versus San Francisco versus New York…it’s a limited pot, people) and some places use all theirs up and need more, other places don’t need so much, etc.

So SEVRA seeks to work out some of these problems. There’s a new formula to decide who gets how much, there’s some language about making more vouchers available to families, and an effort to streamline the process so it’s more efficient. Changes that, according to the Alliance, would be mostly positive.

Last week, the House Financial Services Committee began reviewing SEVRA, and Congressman Tom Price (R-GA), introduced an amendment to prohibit firearm regulations in federally assisted housing.

As it stands, state and localities have the authority to regulate firearms in federally assisted housing: some states regulate against guns, some states don’t.

The House Financial Services Committee adopted the amendment.

On Wednesday, the New York Times published a strongly-worded editorial about the firearms amendment, encouraging members of the committee to stand up against it.

The editorial board hammered pretty hard, in my opinion, saying “…the gun amendment was approved 38 to 31 in the House Financial Services Committee, with 13 Democrats nce more opting for the gun lobby’s zealotry over the cause of public safety.”

While the Alliance doesn’t take a stance on non-housing related issues, we do firmly believe that SEVRA is important legislation and necessitates careful consideration and deliberation.

Check out the editorial, okay? It’s a good read.

16th July
written by naehblog

There’s been a lot – a pretty hefty amount – of data collected about the size of the homeless population. I mean, we really have to had it to HUD; there’s been a concerted effort to make sure we have as much information as possible about this social problem.

Less is known, however, about where that population is. Where are they? Where do they sleep? Are they able to access services? Do we really have an accurate count?

So here, at the Alliance, we’ve been taking a good, hard look at geography.

Geography is important. Just ask people about redlining and redistricting and public school systems. It’s why people look for apartments and houses in particular neighborhoods. It’s one reason there are so many people in NYC and SF and LA.

And it’s no less important to the homeless.

Homelessness is often painted as an urban phenomenon, but we know there are homeless people in suburban and rural areas – and we’re fairly sure that they’re experience is different than that of their big city counterparts because of their geography.

But just to be super-sure, we’ve launched: the Geography of Homelessness!

In this monthly series, we’re answering the following questions (not necessarily in this order):

  • Do rural areas have different rates of homelessness than other areas?

  • How do aspects of homeless systems assistance (e.g. funding, beds) vary by geography?

  • Have certain geographic types (e.g. rural, suburban) experienced greater rates of change in their homeless populations than others?

  • To what extent are people experiencing homelessness in urban areas in major cities, as opposed to suburbs or urban areas in minor cities?

  • Do CoCs that have similar homelessness characteristics have other similar demographic characteristics (poverty, unemployment)?

Part One of the series – Defining the Spectrum – defines the parameters of the research and lays out some FAQs: how do we define urban/rural? What’s the baseline scenario? And the like…

Check it out, and don’t forget to tune in to make sure you don’t miss one of our monthly releases.

15th July
written by naehblog

So last week I did something new – the release of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), so I thought this week I’d do something old: the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistant Act.


The McKinney-Vento Act was authored by Stewart Brett McKinney – a Republican Congressman from Connecticut – and Bruce Frank Vento – a Democratic-Farm-Labor Congressman from Minnesota, both of whom were known to their peers as advocates of those less fortunate, and dedicated to finding supportive programs and solutions to homelessness. The bill was signed by President Ronald Reagan, who – ironically – is often accused of contributing to modern-day homelessness by deinstitutionalizing mental health facilities in the 1980s.


The McKinney-Vento Act was a comprehensive, multi-faceted bill that:

  • Established the Interagency Council on Homelessness, a group of representatives from 15 federal agencies charged to design a comprehensive approach to reduce, prevent, and end homelessness in the country, and
  • Created 20 assistance programs administered by nine federal agencies providing a spectrum of services to homeless people, including supportive housing, emergency shelter, emergency food and shelter grants, rental assistance, job training and education, etc.

The original text of the bill firmly establishes that homelessness is a growing social problem that can be addressed by the federal assistance. I found it particularly interesting that they wrote, “the problem of homelessness has become more severe and, in the absence of more effective efforts, is expected to become dramatically worse, endangering the lives and safety of the homeless; the causes of homelessness are many and complex, and homeless individuals have diverse needs; there is no single, simple solution to the problem of homelessness because of the different subpopulations of the homeless, the different causes of and reasons for homelessness, and the different needs of homeless individuals…”.

(It’s as true today as it was then. Maybe even more so.)


Since 1987, when the Act was enacted, it has been amended four times: 1988, 1990, 1992, and 1994. Most of the amendments have been cosmetic but in 1990, there were more substantial attempts to change the programs.

In 1990, Congress did the following (among other things):

  • Expanded the number of activities eligible for McKinney funding.
  • Expanded the Homeless Children and Youth program, and specified the obligations of state and local communities to ensure that homeless youth and children have access to public education.
  • Created new programs, including the Shelter Plus Care Program and a health care for the homeless program.
  • Renamed the Community Mental Health Services program to Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness program (PATH).


In May 2009, Congress passed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, which reauthorized the McKinney-Vento homeless assistance programs. It was the first significant reauthorization in nearly 20 years, both making transformative changes to the homeless assistance programs under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as decisively shifting the focus of these programs from managing homelessness to preventing and ending homelessness.

Watch Steve Berg, Vice President of the Alliance, discuss the history and transformation of the McKinney-Vento programs. Note: the sound is a little fuzzy – we apologize in advance! (You can also watch this on our YouTube channel).

Hope this helps!

14th July
written by naehblog

The Alliance is probably best known as a federal policy shop, but that’s not all we do here. Nope – we’re a multi-talented organization!

While I may be partial to my native Homelessness Research Institute, we also have a department called the Center for Capacity Building. That’s our field team – the great folks who go out into the field and work directly with communities and local officials to help turn great policy into effective programs and best practices.

Just last week, the Director of the Center for Capacity Building – our own Damien Heath – flew to sunny L.A. to provide technical support to some service providers in southern California. Hosted by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Damien gave a couple workshops on rapid re-housing.

The idea behind rapid re-housing is fairly simple, and it’s borne out of the Housing First model. Basically, we recommend that people experiencing homelessness be housed as quickly as possible – the principle being that providing housing first (get it? Housing First?), and then providing other services as needed, is the best way to reduce and end homelessness in the long run. (For a more comprehensive analysis on Housing First and rapid re-housing, you can always visit our website.

FYI: That’s not how we approach homelessness in America today. Our homeless systems today are focused on managing homelessness through shelters and soup kitchens – not ending homelessness through strategic, systematic means like permanent housing and supportive services. It’s something that the Alliance has been attempting to change for a LONG time.

These are some of the concepts that Damien presented to service providers in Los Angeles, California this Wednesday and Friday of the week passed: the cultural shift that an organization would have to undergo to implement a rapid re-housing strategy, the program design elements of an effective rapid re-housing program, and the local challenges of implementing rapid re-housing in Los Angeles.

Oh, Los Angeles

No doubt, that last segment of the workshop was a daunting one. If there ever was a place to begin the politically-mired conversation about homelessness, Los Angeles would be it. A city with nearly four million people, as ethnically and culturally diverse as they come, Los Angeles is also home to not only the largest homeless population in the country, but also boasts (if you can use that term) the highest percentage (nearly 10 percent of the overall population).

It’s no wonder, then, that Damien encountered a respectable number of questions after his presentation. To develop and implement effective, meaningful homelessness programs in Los Angeles would take strategic, concerted efforts, political and local buy-in from the community, and a lot of elbow grease.

The questions covered the gamut of program development and implementation, from inquiries about the number of required personnel to how to do rapid re-housing in an environment with so few affordable housing options.

But more than anything, Damien said, the audience “got it, bought into it, and wanted to know how to do it.” He said that the providers at the workshop were excited to have a chance to do the work and he was inspired by their energy and commitment to ending homelessness.

With any luck, the opportunity to do this good work will continue with the help of HPRP stimulus funding, dedicated providers, and the generosity of organizations like United Way.

I know I do this a lot, but – like always – fingers-crossed.

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10th July
written by naehblog

Happy Friday everyone! And welcome to another happy edition of news roundup!

Okay, so first: a little self-promotion. The Alliance was featured in two stories with strikingly similar titles in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Check ‘em out – they’re pretty good.

So no big surprise – the news industry was buzzing with news of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development yesterday. The upshot: homelessness is flat, but with rising rates of family and chronic homelessness. Still, USA Today (courtesy of our friend Wendy Koch) and the Associated Press found reason to write about these homelessness trends.

The Associated Press also thought it’d be nice to write about the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (hooray!) – the $1.5 billion program authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act . Evelyn Nieves of the AP writes this great piece about all this stimulus money going to communities across to country so that they can prevent and reduce homelessness in their areas. That’s no trivial sport in this economy.

Also buzzing about the papers is news of the rising tide of homeless female veterans. The Boston Globe reports that the number of female veterans that have wound up homeless after service has nearly doubled in the last decade. Many of these homeless women veterans are younger, and have served in recent conflicts.

I actually got a press call about just this topic this week and ended up chatting with our own resident expert on the topic, Steve Berg (who also happens to be Vice President of the Alliance).

He said that the Globe isn’t off – that female veteran homelessness is, in fact, rising. We have no real, hard data to back up the claim, he offered, but pretty much everyone accepts that to be the case.

What’s more is that the women have a host of different needs than men when they return from service. From family to counseling to job training, women require different resources to help them assimilate back into civilian life.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is attempting to address those needs, though – especially with women still making up only 15 percent of the military – this challenge will no doubt be a tough one.

It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out – as more and more enter the military, more and more women will require specific services and resources as they finish their service and return to civilian life. Whether or not we’ll be able to provide those resources has yet to be seen.

But you better believe that I’ll be keeping an eye out.

With that, I’m over and out.
Have a great weekend, everyone!

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9th July
written by naehblog

At some point, I’ll write an appropriately comprehensive post about youth homelessness, but for right now – this will have to do.

Today, Zach Bonner arrived in Washington, D.C. and completed his 1225 mile journey for youth homelessness. This young man has received TONS of media attention as he trekked across the country to raise awareness about homelessness among young people.

Our own youth homelessness team was out today to support Zach Bonner – and they seemed to have a mighty fine time doing it. Check out our pictures!

If you want to learn about and support Zach, check out the Little Red Wagon Foundation.

You can also read the Alliance’s press release on Zach’s walk on our website.

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9th July
written by naehblog

Today, we’ve got some big news. It’s really big. It’s huge. It is [cue music] – the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)!!

…It’s really much more exciting than it sounds.

Basically, the AHAR is a comprehensive review of homelessness counts and trends in 2008. But before we delve into the magical world of data and statistics, there’s something you should know about this year’s report [cue suspense music]:

This year, there were TWO kinds of data collected: point-in-time counts and year-long data. Point-in-time counts are pretty much raw numbers. They tell us how many homeless people and what kind. Year-long data give us a little more detail about the demographics of these counts. Year-long data is also a bit newer than the point-in-time counts. This is the second year in a row that HUD collected year-long data, and we’re really pretty excited about the increase in data availability and analysis. (Yes, because we’re nerds.)

So without further ado…

This year’s AHAR shows that, overall, homelessness is flat compared to last year. Numbers vary slightly between the point-in-time count and the year-long data, but the Alliance concludes that the changes, if any, are marginal.

What’s much more interesting than the total number of homeless people is the information about specific types of homelessness – most significantly, chronic homelessness and family homelessness.

AHAR shows that chronic homelessness is up just a bit (under one percent) compared to last year.

Not really news by itself, but when you look at the 2008 point-in-time number compared to the 2005 point-in-time number, you get a much bigger picture of the landscape of chronic homelessness. These numbers show that while chronic homelessness decreased by almost 30 percent from 2005 to 2007, that same number crept upwards between 2007 and 2008!

From our vantage, that means that the great strides we had been making in addressing, preventing, and reducing chronic homelessness not only came to a screeching halt, but that we’ve regressed, gone backwards.

And then the families. Examining the numbers for family homelessness is a little harder because there’s a bigger disparity between the point-in-time count and the year-long data: the point-in-time count shows a marginal difference between 2007 and 2008 while the year-long data shows a 9 percent increase.

So which side are we on? We’re still working it out. But our conclusion is the same either way.

Family homelessness didn’t see the decrease that chronic homelessness did in the last few years, but it wasn’t far behind. Point-time-counts showed that family homelessness decreased by almost 20 percent from 2005 to 2007. So whether family homelessness is up by 9 percent or just hovering around the same number, what we ultimately see is a halt in the progress of reducing family homelessness and perhaps even a reversal in the count trends.

This year’s year-long data does provide an even fuller picture of family homelessness. When we looked more closely at the specs, we saw some new trends. Compared to last year, more homeless families are new to homelessness this year – these aren’t the same families we see over and over again in these annual counts.

And these newly homeless families aren’t coming to homelessness from transitional housing or other “at-risk” situations. The newly homeless families are coming directly from stable housing.

What’s up with that? Our money’s on the economy.

This kind of “new homelessness” may suggest that these families are victims of the economic crisis. In general, family homelessness is caused by some unforeseen financial obstacle that pushes them over the edge of financial stability. And in these days, as more and more families are struggling with unemployment and trying to make ends meet, it seems the toll is being felt by the whole family.

So in sum: mixed bag. It’s not like we haven’t been suspecting these figures all along, but it’s sobering to see some of the information confirmed. But we’re hopeful, though, that we’ll get back on track as some stimulus money starts trickling into communities. In any case, we’re keeping our fingers crossed and our eyes wide open.

If you’re interested in learning more, HUD will post the report on their website today – and keep an eye out for developments and interpretations from other homeless advocacy biggies!

Whew – that was a major low-down. Take your time, read it twice, and don’t hesitate to shoot me an email or jot down a comment if you have questions or reactions!