When I came to the Alliance, I really did not know anything about homelessness, or those who were experiencing it. I think, like many people, my experience with people experiencing homelessness was only of those collecting change on the streets.
However, since coming to the Alliance and being exposed to the community dedicated to ending homelessness, I have come to understand that this is not a comprehensive picture of homelessness. I think I thought that all people who were experiencing homelessness fell into that category of what I now understand to be chronic homelessness. Turns out I was wrong – there are so many different types of homelessness, most of which aren’t chronic. One type of homelessness that I had not considered before was family homelessness.
Family homelessness has been in the news a lot lately, especially because of the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) which found that the number of families seeking shelter has increased in the last year. Also, the new Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness, called Opening Doors, set a specific goal of ending family homelessness in 10 years. These developments have pushed the issue into the spotlight so, in an effort to educate myself more about this group, I asked around the Alliance and did some research to get a clearer picture of family homelessness.
So what is family homelessness? It’s exactly what one would think: families who are not able to afford housing, and as a result experience homelessness. Roughly 30 percent of those experiencing homelessness are families.
What do families experiencing homelessness look like? In truth, families experiencing homelessness aren’t different than other poor families. So what usually happens is this: there’s a poor family that’s just getting by and then something happens – an injury, a job loss, a car crash – and some unforeseen cost derails the family’s hard-strapped finances. At some point, they’re unable to make rent and fall into homelessness.
The majority of families who experience homelessness are homeless for fewer than six months. Chronic family homelessness – though it happens – is rare, because in those situations (repeated homelessness or in the case of illness or disability), children are usually removed from the situation.
So what are we going to do about it?Ending family homelessness is really contingent on investing in homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing – which is why we’re really happy with the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), the $1.5 billion stimulus-funded federal program. The program was intended to curb homelessness resulting from the recession by quickly getting families back into housing (that’s the rapid re-housing part) or by connecting families with resources with they become at-risk of losing their housing (that’s the prevention part). It’s being implemented in communities across the country right this very second – and some communities are showing results already. We’re tracking progress in 13 communities across the country – you can see our latest report here.
There are several resources that families can use to help them acquire housing. Unemployment Insurance is available for those who qualify, as is Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for people with disabilities.
But the one program you’re going to hear about most when talking about poor families is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
TANF – sometimes called welfare – is intended to provide poor families with temporary cash assistance as they work towards independence. And this program has been the focus of some legislative action.
In February 2009, Pres. Obama signed into law the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund (ECF) which was meant to help states continue their TANF program. At the height of the recession, it was projected that more families would be turning to public benefits and states would struggle to meet the needs of their residents. The federal government created TANF ECF and allowed states to use the fund to cover up to 80 percent of their TANF expenditures (the states had to come up with the other 20 percent on their own).
The Emergency Contingency Fund is set to expire – but a renewal is being considered in the Senate as part of the Tax Extenders Bill.
But more on that tomorrow!
For more information about family homelessness – including what you and I can do to help out, check out our website.