This week’s news has been full of reports about families in need overwhelming shelter systems. From Baltimore, MD to Springfield, MA, to LaPorte, IN, we’ve seen articles all week about homeless shelters “bursting” with people. Stories about an increase in the number of homeless children and families seem to be the news item of the week.
Shelter programs are struggling to accommodate more families in their existing programs. When they can’t, families are left to fend for themselves. They beg family and friends to let them stay for just one more night, they find well-lit places like train stations or hospital waiting rooms and try to look like they belong, they find retreat in abandoned buildings or quiet corners of parks where their children can rest.
Of course, shelters never want to turn away families in need. They work hard to find church basements that might serve as overflow shelter or to come up with the resources to pay for motel rooms to increase their capacity to serve families. While offering a temporary refuge, homeless providers recognize that overflow shelters and motels cannot provide families the security they need.
But are all the tools that can help shelter programs serve families better being put to use?
The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) was created to curb the expected surge of families experiencing housing crises and homelessness as a result of the recession. It provides flexible resources so that the very families most likely to enter shelter can be stabilized in their own housing instead. It is designed to alleviate the strain on shelter programs so they do not have to turn families away without a place to go. Unfortunately, HPRP is not being fully utilized to assist families with the greatest needs.
Utilizing HPRP resources to rapidly re-house families experiencing homelessness can reduce the strain on shelters – and, in the process – provide permanent housing for vulnerable families.
Too many communities are reluctant to assist families residing in shelter with rapid re-housing. They are serving only a small fraction of the families in shelter because they are concerned that some families will not be able to maintain the housing long-term. They fear that the rental assistance and case management resources available will not be sufficient to allow families to succeed. So HPRP resources are not being mobilized to rapidly re-house families. And shelters are left to struggle the best they can to accommodate families with their own program resources. When all options are depleted, families are turned away and left to fend for themselves.
The fear that families will fail is causing communities to fail these families.
Rapid re-housing emerged in communities like Hennepin County, Minnesota so that families would not be turned away from shelter. Because rapid re-housing techniques allow families to exit shelter quicker, the same number of shelter beds can serve more families. And, more importantly, the families served by rapid re-housing have access to the help they want most of all – assistance getting back into housing.
And rapid re-housing programs do work. Very few families who are placed into housing have a second shelter stay, even during this recession.
We need to make sure that the full array of tools available to respond to housing crises are being put to use so that being turned away without shelter becomes a rare event for families instead of an increasingly common one. Shelter providers critically examine how their community’s HPRP resources are being used and insist that HPRP resources are offered to help families in their shelter programs move back into housing.