26th October
written by Catherine An

Kudos to the New York Times for recognizing the critical importance of the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget.

In a recent editorial, the New York Times called it a “foolish time to cut housing aid,” emphasizing that the bulk of the HUD budget goes to help low-income people and families stay stably housed. Rent vouchers, housing counseling programs, and homelessness aid and prevention are just some of the ways the HUD budget is utilized to assist the most vulnerable Americans from experiencing further hardship – an important cause during these troubled economic times.

Obviously, we at the Alliance couldn’t agree more with the astute observations made in the paper of record.

As these years of heightened unemployment, joblessness, and poverty persist, the people who are most vulnerable to the blows of a sluggish economy – people living in poverty – are at increased risk of experiencing homelessness. Just one unexpected financial crisis – a medical emergency, a job loss, a robbery – could throw a poor family into housing jeopardy. In fact, the Alliance recently projected a five percent increase in homelessness based on this year’s poverty data.

Luckily, we know the right strategies to end avert, prevent, and end homelessness. The Alliance has long championed Housing First, prevention and rapid re-housing, diversion, and other evidence-based, proven methods to both end homelessness and prevent it before it begins. Many of these strategies have produced measurable reductions in homelessness in cities and communities across the country.

In fact, the federal government has adopted and subsidized some of these strategies. In 2009, President Obama authorized the creation of the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, a $1.5 billion initiative to prevent and end homelessness resulting from the recession. The three-year initiative was critical to avoiding significant increases in homelessness during these recessionary years. But while the program is coming to an end, the need for those resources is not. That the impact of the recession continues to afflict Americans across the country is a truth that hardly needs retelling.

The Alliance joins the New York Times editorial board in their appeal to increase the HUD budget. The programs that the department funds are a worthy and important investment that could significantly benefit the people and families hit hardest by the economy. And indeed, this is no time to abandon needy families.

5th October
written by Anna Blasco

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, passed in 1987, provided children without a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” some stability in the form of school.

Thanks to McKinney-Vento, children have the right to stay in their school of origin, despite the upheaval of homelessness. This means that even if kids have to move out of their original school district (because, for example, assistance is not available in that original district), students experiencing homelessness are able to continue attending their school. Because research has shown that students perform better when their school environment is stable, McKinney-Vento requires that school districts must provide transportation for the homeless student to the school of origin.

In recent recessionary years, the cost of bussing homeless students from shelter to school has been debated. States like Massachusetts have declared that they can no longer afford the cost of bussing; others have stopped paying for it outright. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty recently released a report, “Beds Not Buses: Housing vs. Transportation for Homeless Students,” arguing that a focus on housing will benefit the student and community more, while also cutting the high cost of bussing.

More specifically, the report calls for communities and schools to work together to create more affordable housing, which will prevent children from becoming homeless in the first place. The Law Center analyzed data from the Seattle area and found that “the costs to house unaccompanied homeless youth in supportive housing, or to place a homeless family in a two bedroom apartment with a Section 8 voucher, are less than or equal to the likely costs associated with providing special transportation.”

This shifting focus requires collaboration from a number of key stakeholders, including school administrators, local government officials, students and parents, and affordable housing and homelessness prevention advocates.

But the benefit is real. Not only will school districts be able to stretch their limited funds farther, but investing in affordable housing measurably and practically ends homelessness for individuals and families.

Image by Asim Bharwani

7th September
written by naehblog

Today, we pause to revisit the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Sharon McDonald, Director for Families and Youth at the Alliance, shares her thoughts about welfare.

Last month marked the 15th anniversary of welfare reform.  The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) is often heralded as a success.  With the flexibility of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant, many states provided work supports that helped thousands of families transition off of financial assistance and enter the workforce.

The recent recession, however, highlighted some of the weaknesses of the program.  The program did not adequately respond to the increased needs of families suddenly without work and whose unemployment insurance ran out, leaving them teetering on the edge and on their own.  From its inception, the program has allowed too many families to fall through the cracks and into deeper poverty.  Primary among them are families who experience homelessness.

Less than 20 percent of homeless families report receiving financial assistance from TANF agencies.  Studies demonstrate that families who lose TANF assistance often include family members with a disability and other serious barriers to economic self-sufficiency.  While some families may lose TANF financial assistance, other eligible families may never apply.  With the hope of finding a new job quickly, parents experiencing a short-term economic crisis turn instead to extended families and friends.  Many double up.  When doubling up results in conflict, they turn to homeless programs.

TANF programs can be more effective in preventing homelessness.  States can adopt policies that make it easier for families to apply for and receive financial assistance.  They can work to reduce the number of families who are sanctioned off of cash assistance and who lack the means to care for themselves or their children, particularly families that include parents or children with disabilities.  States can also increase benefit levels and provide emergency assistance so that families who do receive TANF can pay for housing.

TANF programs can also be more effective in ending homelessness.  In communities across the country, local welfare agencies are partnering with programs serving homeless families to rapidly re-house families.  In Salt Lake City, for example, the Department of Workforce Services works closely with The Road Home to help families move quickly out of shelter and back into housing of their own.  The Road Home provides housing search assistance, landlord negotiation, and home-based case management to families.  Workforce Services works with the Road Home to provide short-term benefits to help families pay for housing in the first few months and provide employment search assistance so families will be able to pay for housing on their own over the long-term.  The evidence is clear that this approach is working.  Family shelter stays are minimized and over 90 percent of the families served successfully retain their housing with the short-term, upfront help the program provides.

The 15th anniversary of welfare reform provides an opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned from PRWORA on how TANF programs can be improved.  TANF programs can be a more effective buffer to prevent family homelessness and a critical partner in re-housing families who do become homeless.  Ending family homelessness requires the investment of state and local TANF agencies.  With sufficient political will, the 20th anniversary of welfare reform can provide an opportunity to reflect on the great advancements made by TANF agencies to end family homelessness.

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26th August
written by Anna Blasco

Our Friday news Roundup is broken down today by some of the issue areas the Alliance works on:

Chronic Homelessness


  • The Reading Eagle out of Pennsylvania took an in-depth look at the rise in family homelessness, and the barriers some families face in finding affordable housing.
  • Annie Lowrey suggests one way to help the long-term unemployed is to bring back the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Contingency Fund (ECF). The program expired last September, which this very blog called “a low down dirty shame.”


  • This week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report finding that the child poverty rate increased 18% between 2000 and 2009, returning to the level of the early 1990s.
  • Monday will be back to school for many students across the country. The Tallahassee Democrat looks into what that means for students who don’t have a place to call home.

Did we miss any important news this week? Tell us in the comments!

24th August
written by Catherine An

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of welfare reform. Fifteen years ago, on August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act which instituted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). This cash assistance program was designed to encourage employment and self-sufficiency by requiring program participants to work, placing time limitations on benefits, encouraging marriage and discouraging out-of-wedlock births, and enforcing child support.

We at the Alliance know that TANF is an important program to prevent homelessness. Cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid – all the programs that keep poor families afloat are the same programs that keep families stably housed. Without that limited assistance, families could be at real risk for experiencing homelessness.

So how’s the program been working? Well, there’s been no shortage of commentary this week.

Experts at the Brookings Institution suggest that welfare reform has succeeded in reducing poverty despite the sting of the recent recession. Others at the Center for American Progress note how TANF has failed to keep up with rising need among lower-income and poor families. Noted scholar Barbara Ehrenreich and RNC Chairman Michael Steele debated the finer points of welfare reform earlier this week on National Public Radio.

For our part, we were particularly interested in the research of the Urban Institute. They released a publication earlier entitled “What Role is Welfare Playing in this Period of High Unemployment?” (We wrote about this report earlier on the blog, here. ) Similarly, experts at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities released information about how “TANF’s inadequate response to recession shows weakness of block grant structure.

Both the Urban Institution and CBPP suggest that the marked reductions in the number of people receiving TANF benefits and TANF expenditures doesn’t mean the poor familiar are faring any better than they did 15 years ago. To the contrary, publications from both institutions show that, even amidst the persistent recession, TANF rolls have hardly kept up with the rates of unemployment, suggesting that many of the poorest families are suffering through the recession without any assistance. (Ezra Klein observed the same on his blog yesterday. )

While some may cringe at the idea of providing limited assistance to the very poorest people and families, the investment into poverty programs is an important one to make. If we can effectively and efficiently provide enough aid to prevent homelessness and encourage self-sufficiency, we can ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to build a strong, safe future for themselves and their families.

Charts courtesy of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Urban Institute.

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18th August
written by Catherine An

This month, our friends at the Urban Institute released a brief on the role of TANF during the recession.

The news is not so good.

According to researchers Sheila Zedlewski, Pamela Loprest, and Erika Huber, TANF did not play a significant role in keeping families economically stable during the recession. In fact, there were many states in which the number of people enrolled in the TANF program declined (this study specifically looks at years 2007 to 2010) while unemployment rose dramatically. Of particular note is the state of Arizona, where TANF rolls declined by 48 percent while unemployment in Arizona rose by 134 percent.

The finding is curious. TANF is meant to assist poor families with cash assistance and promote self-sufficiency and work. Why then, during a time of economic turmoil and high unemployment, would poor families not take advantage of TANF benefits?

Reduced TANF use has left a number of families in dire financial situations, what the writers of the brief call “disconnected.” “Disconnected” families have no earnings of cash government assistance of any kind. The writers found that in 1996, one in eight low-income single mothers was disconnected; that jumped to one in five disconnected single mothers from 2004 to 2008.

And this is the kind of economic vulnerability that leads to homelessness.
Mainstream welfare programs, like TANF, are often a bridge for many poor people and families between homelessness and housing. Most poor people – and people who become homeless are typically poor people – have scant resources. Depriving a family of even one of those resources can lead the family to tumble into homelessness.

At the end of the brief, the Urban Institute recommends policy measures that could improve the utility and effectiveness of the TANF program, especially during recessionary periods. Among the recommendations are:

  • encouragement of subsidized job programs
  • allowing training and job education to count towards work activity requirements during times of high unemployment
  • permitting federal block grant funds to rise automitcally for states experiencing high unemployment

And finally, the brief concludes with a sentiment that is often felt in our offices. While the temptation to cut such social programs, especially in this fiscal environment, may loom large, we must not forget the role that these precious programs play in the lives of people who have few if any other resources.

To read the full brief by the Urban Institute, please visit their website.

4th August
written by Catherine An

Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, penned this piece on Housing First for FEANTSA (the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless) which is an umbrella of not-for-profit organisations which participate in or contribute to the fight against homelessness in Europe.

What Is Housing First?

Housing First is an approach that is built on the principle that a short experience of homelessness and rapid stabilization in housing are best for homeless people and most effective in ending homelessness.  Housing First places homeless people in housing quickly and then provides or links them to services as needed, rather than the more customary approach of services first, then housing. While not assuming that housing is sufficient to solve all the problems that people have, Housing First does assume that housing is a necessary platform for success in services, education, employment, and health:  in short for achieving personal and family well-being. It also has the benefit of being consumer-driven: housing is what homeless people want and seek.

The Housing First approach focuses on a few critical elements.

  • There is a focus on helping individuals and families access housing as quickly as possible and the housing is not time-limited (it is not shelter, transitional housing, etc.).
  • While some crisis resolution and housing search services might be delivered in the process of obtaining housing, core services to promote well-being and housing stability (treatment, education, child development, etc.) are primarily delivered following housing placement.
  • The nature and duration of services depend upon individual need and services are voluntary.
  • Housing is not contingent on compliance with services; however consumers must typically comply with standard requirements of tenancy (paying the rent, etc.).

Housing First has most often been used to describe an approach for assisting homeless people with serious mental health and substance abuse disorders.  In this context it has been contrasted with a “housing readiness” approach in which people are required to achieve sobriety or treatment compliance as a pre-condition of receiving housing.  However, the principle of Housing First is also applicable to people with less significant or more temporary problems, such as families or individuals who are homeless for economic reasons.  Typically such people are temporarily housed in shelters or transitional housing, often at relatively high cost and for relatively long periods of time (up to two years), while they receive services that will make them “ready” for housing.  However, an increased focus on housing placement, even with relatively small amounts of housing subsidy and linkage to community-based services, is a more effective strategy with a lower cost for this population as well.

What Does a Housing First Approach Entail?

While there is a wide variety of program models, Housing First programs or systems typically include the following activities.

Assessment and Targeting

Individuals and families receive an in-depth, up-front assessment before being referred to or receiving services from a Housing First provider. This allows providers to ascertain both the needs of the consumer, and whether the available program(s) can meet those needs.   The level of assistance programs are able to provide most often shapes who a community can target for Housing First services.

Evidence indicates Housing First is appropriate for most, if not all, homeless people. The combination of housing linked to services can help a wide variety of people exit homelessness more rapidly. This is supported by research that demonstrates that most formerly homeless families, including those with significant challenges, will retain housing with the provision of a long-term housing subsidy. It is also supported by evaluations of Housing First interventions with chronically homeless individuals, which have found that many who have remained outside of housing for years can retain housing with a subsidy and provision of wraparound supports. Finally, it is supported by emerging research that lower-need individuals and families who become homeless can exit homelessness rapidly and avoid repeat episodes with even small amounts of housing subsidy and linkage to community services.

Permanent Housing

There is substantial variation in how Housing First providers meet the housing needs of the individuals and families they serve.

  • Some Housing First programs provide only minimal financial assistance, such as assistance with security deposits and application fees. Other programs are able to provide or access longer term or permanent housing subsidy.
  • Some Housing First programs rely solely on apartments in the private rental market. Others master-lease apartments that they then sub-let to program participants, or purchase or develop housing themselves for sub-lease to participants.
  • There are models in which the Housing First program is the legal lease holder for some initial period of time in which the individual or family is involved with the program.  When program services end, the tenant takes over the lease.  In other program models, the family or individual holds a lease with a public or private landlord from the onset.

To get people housed, Housing First programs have to help people overcome barriers to accessing permanent housing. This includes helping them to resolve outstanding credit issues, address poor tenant histories, collect needed paperwork, etc.  It also involves actively helping them identify housing by reaching out to landlords, housing management companies, public housing authorities, civic organizations, and religious congregations.

To gain access to scarce housing units, Housing First programs must be responsive to the concerns of landlords, housing operators, and developers. Strategies include giving landlords 24/7 access to program staff to address tenant problems; provision of enhanced security deposits; and commitment to quickly re-locate tenants who are in violation of the lease.  Some landlords end up prioritizing Housing First tenants because of the financial and administrative benefit they realize from the partnership with Housing First organizations.

All Housing First providers focus on helping individuals and families move into permanent housing as quickly as possible, based on the premise that social service needs can best be addressed after they move in to their new home.

Low, Moderate or High Intensity Supportive Services

The services provided to Housing First participants vary according to need.  Sometimes Housing First programs assist only with crisis intervention and re-housing, and then link the new tenants to services in the community.  On the other end of the spectrum, those tenants with more intensive and chronic problems may require long-term, housing-based services.  The goal is to provide just enough services to ensure successful tenancy and promote the economic and social well-being of individuals and families. The capacity of programs to provide supportive services following a housing placement is largely determined by, and determines, who is targeted for Housing First services.

Outcome Measures

Determining the effectiveness of Housing First programs relies on capturing outcome data. Among the primary outcomes that should be assessed in a Housing First program are individual or family housing outcomes. How rapidly are families being re-housed? Are individuals and families remaining housed? Do families or individuals re-enter shelter?

Programs may want to capture outcomes on family or individual well-being. Programs serving families may include employment and earning outcomes and school performance of children. Programs serving chronically homeless individuals might examine increases or decreases in hospital stays, involvement with law enforcement, or engagement in employment.  Cost reduction can also be an important metric.

It is also critical to examine the impact of Housing First in reducing overall homelessness in the community or city.  This can be done through regular counts of homeless people.  Another possible metric is to assess whether the average length of a homelessness episode is being reduced.

Moving Forward

A growing body of research documents the effectiveness of the Housing First approach when used in working with homeless people who have serious behavioral health and other disabilities. This research indicates that the approach is effective both at placing and retaining people in permanent housing and at reducing the costs associated with these individuals within the health care and judicial systems.

Housing First also works for people with less intensive needs.  Recent research in the United States demonstrated the high cost of shelter and transitional housing stays for homeless individuals and families, especially relative to the cost of housing.  A significant recent U.S. investment in Rapid Re-Housing[1] (a variation on Housing First that does not typically include long term rent subsidy but rather short term infusions to quickly return households to housing) will provide much more information on the efficacy and cost of this intervention for a wider group of homeless people.  The Housing First approach, across all populations and categories of need, is clearly having an influence, and communities across the United States are beginning to re-engineer their homeless and mainstream systems to focus on the promotion of housing stability.

Moving forward, we continue to embrace the Housing First approach as one that will help us end homelessness much more rapidly for individuals, families and the nation.

[1] $1.5 billion over three years for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program.

Image courtesy of aechempati, C.P.Storm

18th May
written by naehblog

Today’s guest post comes to us from Aaron Bowen, Chief Operating Officer at the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster and Saunders Counties.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore.”

In the Oscar award-winning, Sidney Lumet-directed film “Network,” protagonist Howard Beale is just fed up – and I think many of us in the homeless assistance community can sympathize with his frustration.

Here in Lincoln, Nebraska, just over 830 people in a city of around 250,000 were identified as homeless during our January 26, 2011 Point in Time count. Though our overall homeless count dipped slightly from last year—thanks to a very well-run Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program—we remain worked up knowing that so many people still are homeless in Lincoln.

The trouble is, every group, task force, or coalition that does get together enters the strange and often frightening world of “planning” which can sap the life out of groups attempting to tackle the issue that matters to them most. But, like holding a magnifying glass at just the right angle to gather sunlight to its hottest point, planning is necesary in order to focus that “mad as hell” moment into a powerful force for change.

In Lincoln, that’s just what our Continuum of Care did—we planned! Partnering with experts from the National Alliance to End Homelessness’s Center for Capacity Building, we laid Lincoln’s homelessness services system on the table for dissection. We talked candidly about what we believe we do well and where we continue to stumble.

Through this work, we zeroed in on four main objectives:

  • To assess and get folks appropriately housed as quickly as possible;
  • to increase employment options for our consumers;
  • to tackle youth homelessness; and
  • to build more effective partnerships with landlords and realtors who may house the people we serve.

This resulting plan is something we’re proud of, but it’s the planning itself that produced something even more important. The process brought that magnifying focus to our work, helping us to find clarity in the midst of the million things we know must be done or changed to get and keep everyone housed, healthy, and safe.

We’re getting somewhere more quickly than we would have otherwise. We’re developing a shared housing assessment for local HMIS users. An initiative to make sure kids graduate is in the works. Landlords have assisted in drafting partnership agreements, and we’re focusing more on building and showcasing the employability of our consumers rather than on combating the barriers that stand between them and a good job.

My message to other communities out there: Your planning might not be perfect or all that pretty. Goals may shrink, go dark, and then resurface. People might not be as committed once they have to commit. But you’ll get better each time you try it. New people will listen and want a piece of the plan. You’ll find new purpose and perhaps new support, and you’ll likely lead some other coalition or continuum to planning.

Best of all, through it all, you can still be mad as hell.

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3rd May
written by Catherine An

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently released the second study of a three-part series evaluating the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program. FSS is a program meant to help residents of public housing who are also participants in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program – sometimes called the Section 8 Program – become self-sufficient.

The current study examined programmatic features and family characteristics that appear to influence the success of families participating in FSS.

An FSS program basically works like this:

  • You are a family using a Section 8 voucher. This means that you pay 30 percent of your monthly income toward your rent; the federal government kicks in whatever else you need.
  • The FSS program you’re in helps you gain the skills to make more money through supportive services and case management.
  • As you make more money, instead of contributing the any additional income toward rent (up to 1/3 of your monthly income), the FSS program puts that money in an interest-earning escrow account.
  • When you graduate from the FSS program, you get all that savings.

There are caveats, of course.

  • All families volunteering for the FSS program have to sign a 5- year Contract of Participation (COP) which basically stipulates that they will engage in the program, follow all the rules, take all the steps, etc.
  • People who exit the program before graduating forfeit the savings in their escrow account.

So at the end of the 4-year study period:

  • 41 participants (or 24 percent of the tracking group) graduated from the FSS program and received their escrow,
  • 63 participants (or 37 percent of the tracking group) left the program before graduation, forfeiting their escrow,
  • 66 participants (39 percent of the tracking group) were still enrolled in the FSS program.

The graduates of the program did tend to have certain characteristics that distinguished them from their exiter counterparts. According to the report, a higher proportion of graduates were a) employed at the beginning of the tracking and more likely to stay employed, b) made more money and were more likely to increase their earnings during their time in the FSS program, c) more educated than their exiter counterparts, d) spent more time in the program – about four months longer.

Interested? Want to read more? Check out the report here and learn more about the FSS program on the HUD website.

Photo courtesy of Childrens Book Review.

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19th April
written by Catherine An

A recent report commissioned by the Center for Housing Policy finds that low-income families move much more frequently than the general population. These moves often have to do with the family’s financial status, caused by foreclosure and eviction, among other catalysts.

The report specifically investigates the ways that such mobility impacts children in these families. It finds that children in “hyper-mobile families” – families that move very often – experience negative outcomes including high absenteeism from schools, neighborhood problems, and lower educational development.

Among the conclusions drawn in report is the importance of affordable housing for children and families. Access to affordable housing can reduce the incidence of housing mobility and, in turn, foster housing stability and developmental growth for children.

This report is the first in a series to be release by the National Housing Conference and the Center for Housing Policy.