Alliance President Keynote Remarks, 2013 National Family and Youth Conference

written by naehblog
May 10, 2013

Back in February, about 900 advocates, practitioners, and officials convened in Seattle for two days of sharing innovative practices and new research on family and youth homelessness at the Alliance’s 2013 National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness. These are the keynote remarks delivered by the Alliance's President and CEO Nan Roman at that conference.

Keynote Remarks

Nan Roman

2013 National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness

February 21, 2013

Let me start by saying how tremendously grateful we at the Alliance are for the hard work and dedication of everyone here today. We CAN end homelessness – in each of your cities, towns and communities and in our nation. And when we do it, it will be because of you.

You are talented and committed practitioners who take extraordinary measures every day to end homelessness for families. You are determined youth workers who labor so long with so little but still accomplish miraculous things. You are gifted policymakers who recognize that compassion alone is not enough, but that we need systems and programs and resources to end homelessness. You are brilliant researchers who question conventional wisdom and build a case for innovative solutions. And you are people who have drawn insight from your own painful experience of homelessness in order to inform our efforts and remind us why we cannot give up.

Thank you for coming here to share your wisdom with us.

We survived the recession without a big increase in homelessness. And that is good – the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) and your hard work are responsible. In 2012 there were 236,000 people living in 77,000 homeless families, according to the national Point-In-Time Count, which, for all its inadequacies, provides the only apples-to-apples comparison that we can make from year to year. While that number represents a rise in homelessness among families of 1.4 percent from 2011 to 2012, it also represents a 3.7 percent reduction in family homelessness since 2007. Unfortunately, we don’t have numbers on homeless youth.

Given the imprecision of this data, I would say that the number of homeless families over the past five years has remained more or less constant. Given the recession and economic downturn since 2007, it is tempting to call that a victory. However, this is just not good enough.

We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to get the numbers down further. The way I see it, we have three options to accomplish that. One, we could secure more funding from the federal, state, or local levels for homeless programs. Two, we could address the economic drivers of homelessness: the shortage of affordable housing and declining incomes. Or three, we could find efficient alternatives that allow us to end homelessness for more people with less funding.

Let’s take a look at the first option. The prospects for getting a whole lot of new federal money through appropriations are not good. As you are all aware, the national debt, the federal deficit, and the sequester are all likely to limit the amount of federal money that will become available for homeless assistance. And we haven’t heard much good news lately about state or local spending, either.

One exception is the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, a program very similar to HPRP, but designed for veterans and their families. It will likely receive increased federal funding in the coming year. So anyone who is working with families or youth who have a veteran association should look to SSVF, or other programs under the Department of Veterans Affairs, for some help.

Increased funding is unlikely, but it is not impossible. Historically, we have seen increases in homelessness assistance funding even when Congress cut funding for other programs. So we are not going to stop advocating for more funding. Advocacy is essential, if only to ensure that funding for homeless assistance at least holds even from year to year.

That brings us to our second option.  As we all know, the phenomenon of homelessness is, indeed, a complex one, but we also know that, for most families, it is driven primarily by the mismatch between incomes and housing. For people with low incomes, affordable housing is limited. Neither the minimum wage nor welfare can provide them with enough money to pay for housing. When it comes to meeting the demand for units of housing in their price range, the country remains more than 6 million units short.

While ending the affordable housing crisis would cost even more than direct funding to end homelessness, cause for hope may be on the horizon. The National Housing Trust Fund, which the president has signed into law, has never been funded. The National Low Income Housing Coalition is making a big push this year to ensure that it is. I urge you to support this effort, the goal of which is to provide $30 billion a year for 10 years.  That should be enough to end homelessness, and the Alliance stands firmly behind this initiative.

This year the Bipartisan Policy Council, a think tank that draws on the political and economic expertise of  leaders from both parties to conceive bipartisan solutions to big questions, formed a Housing Commission. That Commission – on which I was honored to serve – will offer its recommendations next week. I am not allowed to say what they are today, but I can tell you that they will include a bold and expansive proposal to address the housing needs of the lowest income people. And I can tell you that this proposal too would end homelessness.

Of course, both these initiatives would be dependent on new federal money for affordable housing. Given what I’ve already said about the federal budget situation, you may be asking yourself why I’m even talking about them.

One potential game-changer that could set the stage for these initiatives is comprehensive tax reform, which could put the mortgage interest and other home owner tax deductions on the table. Together these deductions are worth tens of billions of dollars. Another is the reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which may include a host of new mortgage fees. Either of these could produce substantial new revenues. Much would go toward debt reduction, but you can count on a big effort to capture at least some for housing, and, specifically, for meeting the housing needs of the most vulnerable.

So those are the first two options. And we have to be realistic and admit that, though they are promising, they are far from certain.  If we manage to secure increased funding for homeless assistance, it is unlikely the increases will be substantial enough to make a huge difference. And while the Administration could realize new revenues from tax reform and new mortgage fees, capturing enough of it to address the shortage in affordable housing will be difficult. Even if the housing Trust Fund were fully funded, it could still be years before we saw the impact.

That leaves us with our third and final option, which is to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of our programs in order to help more people with the same amount of funding, or less.

I don’t think we can wring much more efficiency from our programs by working harder, making copies on both sides of the paper, or things like that. But I DO believe that we have some ability to do more with less, and that our destinies and those of the families and youth we care about are, to some degree, in our hands. At a minimum, we should be capable of reducing the numbers again – at least among families.

And we really do need to improve our numbers. Even before spending cuts we are still leaving a lot of people behind. According to the 2012 Point-In-Time estimates, 21 percent, one in five families, are unsheltered. We don’t know how many homeless youth there are, so it is impossible to say how many aren’t sheltered, but given that there are hardly any beds for youth, I would guess it is a high percentage. Increasing cost-effectiveness and efficiency is no longer optional; it’s a matter of extreme urgency and, for the families and youth who rely on these services, it’s a necessity.

When it comes to serving homeless families, our primary aim should be to house people faster. Instead of spending money on supporting homeless families while they live in a facility, why don’t we help them move into their own place and then provide services for them there? The way to do this at the program level is rapid re-housing accompanied by transition services that strengthen ties with their new communities.

Data from community after community have shown the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of rapid re-housing. Recently we compiled data from 14 cities and found that, in these communities, rapid re-housing was the best intervention when it came to the metrics that matter: performance, outcomes, and cost. In these 14 cities, more people went from rapid rehousing programs to permanent housing than from shelters or transitional housing. While 32 percent went from shelters to permanent housing and 55 percent went from transitional housing to permanent housing, rapid rehousing performed the best: 85 percent of families from rapid rehousing programs moved to permanent housing.

Are families who exit transitional housing more likely to hold on to their housing because of the services they receive? To get an idea, we looked at data from seven communities that tracked this outcome, and we found that all forms of assistance performed well:  Only 9 percent of families who exited shelter for permanent housing became homeless again; and only 11 percent of those exiting transitional housing for transitional housing re-entered the shelter system.  But rapid re-housing still did best:  only 4 percent of families who were rapidly rehoused became homeless again.

So rapid rehousing has better results. Compared to shelter and transitional housing, more people exit to permanent housing, and fewer become homeless again, but what about the cost? In the 14 communities we looked at, the average cost per exit to get a family into permanent housing was $22,000 from transitional housing, as compared to $10,000 from shelters. Rapid rehousing was the least expensive: $4,000.

Now of course nothing is ever simple and we all understand that numbers don’t come without their caveats and complications. But I believe that these data, and the experience of advocates and practitioners working in communities across the country, indicate that we need to make some changes. If we are going to help more families with less money, we are going to have to shift money from other programs to rapid re-housing.

You may have heard the saying, “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” Well, we are likely going to have a serious budget crisis, and we should not let it go to waste.

You now have a year to think about how to take advantage of the crisis. It is possible that there won’t be enough funding for all renewals for Continuum of Care and other community funding in the immediate future.  We can’t just stay on autopilot. We must be more dynamic. With new data, new research, and new practices, we can improve our program models and come up with more innovative combinations of interventions. We can shift money from transitional housing to rapid rehousing. We can make sure our shelter systems are short term and exit-focused. And we can move from a program approach to a systems approach.

And it is time that we stop viewing the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) as an onerous HUD requirement and accept it as an invaluable tool. The data in HMIS can show us what works and what doesn’t, and that will show us how best to deliver services to homeless families, re-house families faster, and make sure they stay housed.

Finally, there must be enough shelter for those who need it. Not everyone needs rapid rehousing or another placement. With a few nights of shelter many will figure something out on their own. Managing who needs what, however, will remain a challenge. So it is time that we figure out the crisis response or short-term shelter system.

Coordinated assessment and entry are crucial, but not a tool for funneling families away when you don’t have enough shelter. If you find that the people you are assessing need something you’re unable to provide, you aren’t doing coordinated entry, you’re just creating a waiting list. You can use coordinated assessment and entry not just to assess people, but to assess your system to determine whether a family can go someplace besides shelter—diversion – or to evaluate your resources and determine what you need to move around or create so that you can keep people moving through the pipeline.

When we’re already leaving a fifth of homeless families unsheltered, we cannot  afford to resign ourselves to doing less for homeless families simply because we have less money – not when we have so many more smart alternatives.

When it comes to youth experiencing homelessness, the story is very different. I cannot advise you to do more with less, because the sad reality is that we’re currently doing very little with practically nothing. So we don’t need to do more with less. We just plain need to do more.

At our 2012 National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness we presented a typology and framework for youth homelessness. I won’t go over it in detail again today, but I do want to refresh your memory, because I think it is helpful in thinking about how we can do a better job for youth.

In many ways, youth experiencing homelessness are not that different from adults who experience homelessness. Nearly 2 million kids leave home every year, but like adults, most experience homelessness for only a brief period. Most return to housing or their families pretty quickly and more or less on their own, and the majority remains connected to their homes or schools.

However, for nearly 100,000 unaccompanied youth, the homelessness experience is far more serious, and their connection to home or school is either tenuous or nonexistent. About 40,000 of them live with a disability or other serious barrier to housing stability.

And let’s not forget: bad things can happen quickly. Even youth who experience homelessness for only a few hours are in danger. So for the youth who return home after a brief episode, we need a crisis system that gets them home faster and protects them during their period of homelessness. For that 40,000 youth with the most intensive needs, who are often creamed out – we need to screen them in.

While homeless youth need housing, they also need housing with adults. Not all youth homelessness is a product of dysfunction within a family. Many families split up because they cannot afford housing. In such cases, homeless youth benefit greatly from interventions like family finding, family intervention, and family reunification.

Much work remains to be done in order to integrate the youth homeless system with the adult system via HEARTH – not so that we can send homeless youth to adult shelter, but so that we can access more services and improve assistance. As HEARTH is implemented, we need to think carefully about how to integrate youth in the data systems, the coordinated intake, and the outcome measuring. Already, about 50,000 young homeless families a year receive assistance from the adult family systems.

Obviously this is also a complex conversation and one that has really stepped up over the past year. There are many fantastic workshops during the conference exploring these and other issues around youth homelessness.

I would be remiss if I did not mention in my remarks today some of the most important players in our national struggle to prevent and end homelessness – funders, both private and public.

As for the public funders, right now we are blessed to have brilliant and determined people at some of our federal agencies, in particular the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs. And Barbara Poppe and her staff at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness are working to coordinate homeless and mainstream resources across agencies. We are honored to have some of these people here with us today, and I encourage you to seek them out at the conference.

All of these federal partners are working hard to get mainstream programs on board, because we are not going to end homelessness through homeless programs alone. Clearly, the mainstream programs must stop sending people into homelessness. Clearly, mainstream programs can do more to help families and youth escape homelessness, and to support people who do become homeless.

However, most of the decisions about what mainstream programs will do are made in the states and localities. Unfortunately, people often assume that the players at the local level – Housing Authorities, Workforce Investment Act (WIA) boards, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) offices – are tapped out or lacking in resources. In fact, it is often the case that no one has ASKED them to be a partner in ending homelessness. So yes, budgets are tight. But I urge you to ask your mainstream programs to be your partners, and do so often. If you don’t ask for anything, you won’t get anything.

As for the private funders, we need them to be strategic, too. Again, we have some absolutely terrific funders here with us today. Funders Together to End Homelessness, headed by Anne Miskey and chaired by David Wertheimer of the Gates Foundation, has been working with funders around the country to help them stop funding the bad stuff and start investing in the good stuff. And they are awesome partners. I urge you to get your local funders to connect with Funders Together – you’ll be glad you did.

In closing, I would just like to say that we have a lot of work ahead of us. Moving forward, we must take stock of our programs to ensure that they are performing efficiently AND leading to good outcomes. We must continue to develop homelessness systems that effectively deploy resources and meet the needs of families and youth experiencing homelessness. And to do all of this, we must become more effective advocates and better at letting our elected officials know what we need. As long as the goal of ending homelessness drives us, we will continue to improve.

Over the course of the conference, I hope you will take advantage of this opportunity learn from and explore the ideas of the many incredibly well-informed people who are here today from around the country, from whom we at the Alliance learn EVERYTHING, as well as share your own.

And again, thank you so much for being here and for all you do. We at the Alliance feel privileged to be your colleagues, and we honor you for the work you do every day to end homelessness.