Coalition for the Homeless
Building Awareness and Support at the Local, State, and Federal Level for
Ending Homelessness and Supportive Housing
EVEN IN THE FACE OF 1990s ECONOMIC PROSPERITY, homeless statistics show the number of homeless has remained stubbornly high. Between five and six hundred thousand people are considered "homeless" at any given time - without a “permanent, safe, decent, affordable place to live” (Homelessness in America persists in part because many urban areas remain economically depressed, housing costs have risen rapidly in the past decade, and wages for lower skilled workers have remained stable.
Homeless Statistics
The most proximate cause of homelessness in America is poverty. Statistics show between twenty and thirty percent of homeless families surveyed in 1996 said they had gone without food for part of the previous month. The homeless also face persistent deprivation and constant threat of harm. They spend more time in the hospital and in jail than their poor counterparts. The majority are victims of violent crimes, and one fourth lack needed medical care. Children in homeless families do worse in school and have lower attendance and more long-term absences persist.
Although single men constitute about sixty percent of the homeless population, families constitute about one third of all homeless and are the fastest-growing group of homeless. The homeless elderly will also be an important group as America ages in the next decades. Although about seventy percent of the homeless live in central cities, rural homelessness is a hidden problem. The rural homeless are more likely to be families that are homeless for shorter periods of time, often as a result of domestic violence.
Preventing Homelessness in America
Involve local governments. Because the homeless usually qualify for various kinds of public assistance, public agencies need to be involved in coordinating services and referring clients to homeless programs. Consider forming a local interagency coordinating body to bring all of the important players who might be included in prevention together (for example, community development corporations, literacy programs, programs for the mentally ill.
Do a “gap analysis” to determine the character of the homeless and potentially homeless in the community, the services most in need (for example, rent assistance or employment), and how best to provide those services in a coordinated manner.
Hire staff experienced at coordinating various funding streams, especially federal grants.
Train providers of mainstream services such as health clinics, public assistance offices, and food pantries, about how to integrate homeless awareness into their usual procedures. This requires significant outreach by homeless programs to service providers that may not be used to addressing the issue.
Provide rural homeless families with temporary shelter and rental assistance funds, because rural homeless are often homeless for only short periods of time. Rural shelters, however, must undertake more rigorous outreach to find these families (Singleton).
Placing the Homeless into Permanent Housing
For families and independent able adults, programs should be designed to place the homeless into permanent housing as soon as possible. Tenants who have both serious mental illnesses and substance abuse problems have the hardest time thriving in permanent independent housing, but those with either mental illness or substance abuse problems often do well. Groups that assist clients in permanent housing should:
Keep services, such as job training, available to new residents, if possible for at least one year after placement. Often clients have to “start from scratch” in their finances and employment. Provide services such as credit counseling, courses in financial management, and mediation with landlords to head off financial problems that can lead to eviction and a new cycle of homelessness.
Follow up on the status of their clients. Studies of placement programs often find that they lose track of residents within the first year, so track clients carefully, and assess their need for specific services.
Placing Homeless into Transitional and Supportive Housing
Transitional housing provides a temporary place for the homeless to live for one to two or more years while they wait for a permanent home to become available, or shelter for homeless who are not yet able to live in permanent housing (for example, those with a severe substance abuse problem). Transitional housing is becoming less popular as focus shifts to moving homeless into permanent housing as soon as possible, but is often necessary in areas where vacancy rates in permanent housing are low. Services in transitional housing include education and job training and homeownership and employment counseling, which can be very successful.
In addition to shelter, supportive housing provides treatment for the mentally ill and substance abusers. Clients have access to in-house or off-site services such as medical and psychological care and substance abuse treatment. Supportive housing is crucial as about half of all homeless adults have problems with alcohol and one third with other drugs. In addition, between twenty and twenty-five percent also have a major mental illness. Supportive housing can be very effective in facilitating treatment of mental illness and preventing emergency hospital visits; Corporation for Supportive Housing [CSH]*). Organizations that provide transitional and supportive housing strategies can utilize effective strategies, such as:
Drafting a plan for the types of clients you want to serve and the services you want to provide.
Coordinating service providers and funding sources. Frequent meetings among all relevant players are crucial, as is a staff that is skilled at diplomacy and administration.
Keeping the quality of tenants in mind. The initial tenants in supportive housing create the culture of the community, so select tenants carefully. The screening process may differ based on the type of client you are including. For example, many organizations use a stricter screening process for single men from large shelters than they do for single women or families (CSH*).
Carefully considering substance use requirements. It is unclear whether requiring clients to take medication and stay substance-free is more effective than a more permissive approach. However, if the program does require behavior modification, it is more useful to focus on the client’s behavior as it affects the community-for example, the commotion caused by causing a fight while using drugs rather than the drug use itself (CSH*).
Focusing on helping clients comply with leases, make prompt rent payments, and keep their housing clean to prevent potential problems and help clients make the transition to permanent housing.
Reaching out to the surrounding community, perhaps by opening meeting facilities to community groups.
Measuring outcomes. Are the services sufficient and effective, does the surrounding community have good relations with the housing residents, are able clients placed as soon as possible?
Having tenants on staff increases their job skills for future employment, and also provides necessary feedback to the programs.
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