Alliance President Keynote Remarks, 2014 Family and Youth National Conference

written by naehblog
April 21, 2014

Back in February, the Alliance's 2014 National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness drew  more than 800 people from across the country, including federal and local officials, homeless advocates, and other people working on the front lines of the fight to end homelessness, to New Orleans to address a wide range of issues, including health care reform, funding strategies, housing for homeless veteran families, engaging homeless youth through social media, and the commercial sexual exploitation of homeless youth. These are the keynote remarks delivered by the Alliance's President and CEO Nan Roman on the first day of that conference, February 18, 2014.



February 18, 2014

I am honored to join the Board of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in welcoming you to the 2014 National Conference on Homeless Families and Youth. I also want to thank the City of New Orleans and all our partners here in Louisiana, especially UNITY of Greater New Orleans, for welcoming us. They have a special place in our hearts because of all they have done to end homelessness in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. With my remarks today I would like give you an idea of where we currently stand in the fight to end family and youth homelessness, and then take a moment to reflect on what lies ahead.

According to the most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), the number of people in families experiencing homelessness decreased 7 percent from 2012 to 2013. That decline took place entirely among families who were unsheltered (down 37 percent); the number of people in families experiencing homelessness who were sheltered actually went up a tiny amount – 0.3 percent. That family homelessness declined is a significant achievement – and it’s your achievement because nothing in the economy caused that to happen.

We continue to hear many people disparage the AHAR and the Point-in-Time (PIT) Count on which it’s based. Some claim that the decline in family homelessness is entirely linked to bed inventory. In other words, they say that all the PIT Count really does is count people in beds; so the number of families went down because the number of beds went down. Actually the number of beds went up this year, while the number of families went down.  So that isn’t true.  And also, the PIT Count counts more than people in beds, as you all know. It also counts unsheltered people.

Other people have said that the PIT Count is contradicted by the Department of Education numbers, which show a massive increase in family homelessness. But when you parse those Education numbers, you find them to be consistent with the HUD numbers. As you know, Education counts not only people who are literally homeless (either sheltered or unsheltered), but also people who are doubled-up or living on motels and hotels. So, while it’s true that Education found increases, it found them only among the latter group: the number living doubled-up or in motels and hotels went up 17 percent.

It is important that we acknowledge that there has been an increase among this group of unstably housed people who are vulnerable to literal homelessness; and it is especially important for the Department of Education, which can help keep these kids stable in school. But when we look at just the number of families who are in shelter or unsheltered – literally homeless – the Department of Education found a decrease of 7 percent. So the HUD and the Education numbers are more consistent than they may seem at first glance, once you compare apples to apples.

Many say that the methodology behind the PIT Count is imperfect, and they are not wrong. No count or census is ever perfect. When discussing the PIT count, we should always acknowledge its limitations. It definitely does not count every homeless family or youth. Nevertheless, it does count sheltered and unsheltered families in a relatively consistent way over time. This gives us a picture as to whether we are doing better at solving the problem – or worse – both in our communities and in the nation.

Critics of the PIT Count say that everyone knows that family homelessness is skyrocketing, so the PIT count can’t be correct. But I am perplexed as to how anyone – with zero data to show it – could know that the number of homeless families is skyrocketing. You need more than a feeling to know that.

And finally, many in the homeless assistance field worry that saying that family homelessness is going down implies that there is no affordable housing crisis. If family homelessness is going down, it’s going down: you can’t say it’s going up just because you believe that will strengthen the case for affordable housing. I don't see that there is any inconsistency in acknowledging that we have reduced family homelessness in the midst of a growing affordable housing crisis. It’s pretty easy to talk about both.

So to all the critics I say please do not be afraid of the PIT Count. Understand and explain its limitations. Use it strategically. Work to make it better. Data help build the case, and better data will help build a better case. I can tell you from experience that the reason federal homelessness funding has done better than other federal housing funding is because we have better data. And, as the number of homeless people has gone down, the money hasn’t gone down. It’s gone up.

We have been holding the line on family homelessness. However, this is just because you have been doing a better job – not because the economic factors related to family homelessness have improved. While the numbers have gone down at the national level, at the local level our progress has varied from region to region. Family homelessness is down in about half of communities and states, and up in about half. So your experience of family homelessness in your community may correctly be that it is going up.

While unemployment is on the decline and the stock market rising, for low-income people, things are not getting better. Nearly 50 million people were poor in 2012, and 16 million of them lived below half of the poverty line. And housing costs are going up. According to a recent report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, more households are renting their homes, and their rents are going up. Meanwhile, their incomes are going down. The result is that seven out of 10 families who make less than $15,000 a year pay more than half of their incomes for rent. And only 1 in 4 of those families who are eligible for housing assistance gets it.

These figures tell us that pretty much every one of the tens of millions of poor families must pay a high percentage of their income toward rent. No wonder poor people experience housing instability. They’re paying too much for housing. And yet only a few hundred thousand of them become homeless every year. Given the conditions they face, it’s a wonder that more of them don’t become homeless.

In a sense, except for the 5 percent or so of chronically homeless families, the homelessness system could be thought about less as a system that deals with some special condition of homelessness, and more as a system that helps poor people manage their housing crises. So while it is bad that they pay that much, they manage it. That’s important to remember when we think about rapid re-housing.

So what are some of the trends with regard to how we help families experiencing homelessness? The big developments are the shift to coordinated assessment and entry, and the adoption of rapid rehousing. And there are some growing pains. During the conference, you will encounter plenty of content on these developments, but for now let’s look at a few key emerging issues.

Many people remain unconvinced that rapid rehousing will work. Some believe that homeless families simply can’t sustain housing if they have to pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent. But given the information I just shared with you, it is obviously not true that they cannot sustain high rents – most do. It is counterintuitive, and it is not what we want for families, nor is it what families want for themselves, but it's reality.

The homeless system is not changing the dynamics of the income/housing affordability equation. We are not increasing people’s incomes enough to make housing affordable, and we are not creating cheaper housing. What we are doing is helping people cope with this dynamic, helping them overcome cash flow problems, eliminate barriers, and get on a track for long term sustainability – by helping them manage their housing crises and linking them to services.

Critics of rapid re-housing compare it unfavorably to Section 8. But saying rapid re-housing doesn't work as well as Section 8 is like saying a parent shouldn’t take a job that increases his or her income to $25,000 because what the family really needs is $150,000 a year. Yes, Section 8 is better. But resources are limited and Section 8 isn't immediately available to the majority of families exiting homelessness. Rapid re-housing is not perfect, but it’s better than the actual alternatives: emergency shelter or transitional housing, which don’t provides families with any financial assistance when they exit homelessness.

Some people may worry that rapid rehousing is just a check and a handshake, which feels wrong when they are struggling to help families solve serious problems. But many families become homeless because of a financial crisis; they just need some money to get back into housing. We don’t think so much about them because they don’t stay long in our system, but to be honest, all these families do need is a check and a handshake. When it comes to families with greater needs, rapid re-housing absolutely doesn’t have to be just a check and a handshake. It can, and should, be something more.

Today we released a list of the core elements of rapid re-housing that the Alliance developed with USICH, HUD, VA and other federal agencies. This list is meant to clarify what rapid re-housing is, and identify exactly what components a rapid re-rousing program must contain. In developing this model of rapid re-housing, it became clear that organizations with rapid re-housing programs must offer a menu of services to families, who can use them as needed. The components of rapid re-housing we agreed upon are: housing identification; rent and move-in financial assistance; and rapid re-housing case management and services.

Rapidly re-housing a homeless family begins with working to resolve any tenant and credit issues they may have. You then help them find housing, negotiate with the landlord, and sign the lease, after which you can ensure that they understand their responsibilities as a tenant. Next, you help them move in and get organized. Finally, you can connect them with services in their new community that can help them increase their income, and access treatment or other things they may need. You could provide these services yourselves, or coordinate them through others. And you should keep track of the family’s progress, at least in the short run, to see they might need additional help. These are a lot of services, but they are largely focused on helping people get housing, and keep it.

The bottom line of rapid re-housing is that any of us, rich, poor, or middle class, who loses our house, thinks of only one thing -- getting back into a home.  Homeless families are no different and just like anyone else, they need a home.  From a home, they can work, keep their kids in school, and approach their problems from a solid footing.

Providers like rapid re-housing for the simple reason that they are committed to ending families’ homelessness, and rapid re-housing does that. Even the skeptical providers who adopt rapid re-housing seem to love it. We’ve heard that from the domestic violence providers in Washington State who adopted a Housing First/Rapid Re-Housing approach. We heard it from the providers across the state of Virginia who just rehoused over 500 families in 100 days – that’s 70 percent of the homeless families in VA. And we heard it from the providers in Los Angeles who were resistant, but are now trying to expand rapid re-housing across the county.

Having said that, it is important that we recognize that rapid re-housing is not the whole story. We must still have shelter to house families briefly while they resolve crises and find a new place to live. And for the 5 percent of families who face extra barriers, permanent supportive housing may be a better fit. Diversion will remain an integral element of a system as well. But for so many families, rapid re-housing should do the trick.

We have seen some difficulties occurring across the country in the interface between coordinated assessment and entry, and rapid re-housing. Using all the great new assessment tools that are emerging like the Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (SPDAT), providers will assess homeless families as needing rapid re-housing, or some other intervention – and often there’s not enough of the intervention to meet the need. For example, you may find a hundred families who need rapid re-housing, but only 20 get housed. The result is wait lists. This is a problem but not an insurmountable one.

First, assessment is, of course, critical. But a community must determine how it will prioritize its scarce resources, and then use the information from the assessment to implement those priorities. If you have 20 slots, figure out what 20 families are going to get rapid re-housing and refer the others to other services. It’s better to be up front with families who are in crisis about what you have to offer them. It’s not fair to promise them something that they can’t get in a timely manner, or that they won’t need by the time you can offer it. And that’s what wait lists do. We need to see people as being in crisis – not a perpetual state of homelessness, waiting for the perfect solution.

Second, don't prematurely dismantle shelter. It's true that rapid re-housing works for most families. Eventually your local system should have the capacity to rehouse everyone pretty quickly. But if you don't have that capacity right now, you are going to need to maintain some crisis capacity. 

Finally, remember from the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) that rapid re-housing is actually really easy to implement. Coordinated assessment is essential to create a community system, and end family homelessness. But you don't need to have a perfected Coordinated Assessment system to start doing rapid re-housing as an organization. You can just start doing it. The organizations in Virginia that housed 500 families in 100 days hadn’t been doing rapid re-housing, but they made the change in a brief time, set the goal, organized around it, and achieved it!

Finally, I would like to close this part of the discussion with something really exciting. Does everyone here know about Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program? It is very similar to HPRP, but for veterans and their families. Right now a large amount of funding is available out there for SSVF, possibly enough to re-house every veteran family. We need to ramp up our coordination between the VA and Continuums of Care (CoCs), identify every vulnerable veteran family, and provide them with this assistance. If we can’t house every homeless veteran family, we’re doing a poor job.

You may have heard recently about the competition between Phoenix and Salt Lake City to end chronic veteran homelessness. Phoenix won by housing every chronically homeless veteran. Why is it chronic homelessness that always gets these contests? Why not veteran family homelessness? The Alliance would be delighted to do everything it can to highlight the first city that ends veteran family homelessness, and I bet our partners at VA and HUD would join in. We can set these goals for more than just chronic homelessness – so let’s go for it!

All right now, let’s move from families to youth.

How many of your communities participated in the youth count last year or this year? The level of participation is growing, but it’s not nearly enough. Tomorrow we will hear from Bryan Samuels from Chapin Hall in Chicago about what we know about youth homelessness and what we can do about the problem, but let me say something today: we badly need more information about the scope and breadth of youth homelessness. Every community should begin planning now to include youth in next year's mandatory PIT Count.

While we may not know definitively how many homeless youth there are, one thing we do know is that we do not have enough beds, even for the few kids we have counted. During the last PIT Count, very few unaccompanied youth under 18 were counted, just 6,000, and we have only 4,000 beds for these 6,000 kids. So at a minimum, we need 50 percent more beds than we currently have for children under 18. And of course if we had a more accurate count, you can be sure that the gap would be bigger.

Youth 18 and older tend to use the adult shelter system, which is probably not the best place for them. Possibly as a result, the PIT Counted 41,000 youth between the ages of 18 and 24, half of whom were unsheltered. We at the Alliance estimate that 130,000 youth ages 18 to 24 experience homelessness in a year, so we obviously need more beds here as well.

Really it’s shocking how poorly we are responding to the homelessness crisis of unaccompanied children, youth and young adults. We must do a much better job helping these young people than we currently do. We must bring more attention to the potential for family reunification as an intervention for homeless youth. We must work harder to meet the special needs of LGBT youth. We must adjust the scoring in the CoC NOFA to reflect the fact that the one population for whom transitional housing does work is youth under 24. And we must push mainstream systems, including child welfare and TANF, to assume more responsibility for these kids.

At the Alliance we are working with our partners at National Network for Youth True Colors Fund, Funders Together to End Homelessness, the National Coalition for the Homeless and others to ramp up  these efforts at the national level, but the success of our work will rely on the valuable work of people like you who are pressing these issues locally.

Fortunately, despite all the bad news we have heard about resources, and the difficulties that high-need, low income people face in this economy, we can see some opportunities on the horizon. Many of us still hold out hope that the National Housing Trust Fund, which is authorized to create a significant amount of new affordable housing, might actually receive funding. No one knows for sure if this will happen—in the short run it’s up to Mel Watt, the new Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac conservator. And no one knows how much funding it could receive—but probably several hundred million dollars. That would be the first significant new investment in affordable housing in a long time.

And we have the recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) Housing Commission, a bipartisan group of leaders on which I serve. The BPC recommends that we provide rental assistance to every extremely low income household that needs it. The BPC also recommends increasing the Low Income Housing Tax Credit by 50 percent, and making housing crisis funds available to all low income households. While these measures would be expensive, we could pay for them through the reallocation of home ownership incentives—like the Mortgage Interest Deduction—when there is comprehensive tax reform.

Thanks to the hard work of USICH and stakeholders at the state and local levels, we have seen progress in the involvement of mainstream systems. Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg has written to all state TANF agencies encouraging them to take more responsibility for homeless families. Head Start has committed to intervening with families who have unstable housing, and they some surprising tools to do so.  Home visiting is emerging as a mainstream intervention much appreciated by at-risk families. And the Fostering Connections Act allows states to use federal resources to support young adults in foster care – including for housing.

So where do all of this leave us, moving forward?

First, we recognize that homelessness is a symptom of larger economic forces. The homelessness system is not, by itself, going to change those forces. Conditions for poor people are difficult and not improving. We may not be able to prevent people from experiencing housing crises, but we can help people survive them. They don’t need to stay homeless. We should be able to end their homelessness as quickly as possible, and in the smartest ways we know how. And when it comes to larger economic forces, we should also be working with them to advocate for more fundamental change.

As many of you know, this year marks the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty, which President Lyndon Johnson declared during his State of the Union Address on January 8, 1954.  What I find so meaningful about the War on Poverty is not perhaps its programs – Head Start, Legal Aid, Job Corps – as important as they are.  It is the audacity of the President of the US to aspire to solve the problem of poverty, and his call to the nation to join him. President Johnson said at the State of the Union,

This budget, and this year's legislative program, are designed to help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes—his hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age.

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. Can you imagine such a thing today?  There are few politicians who would have the audacity.  you imagine such a thing today?  There are very few politicians who would have the audacity. 

The War on Poverty did not, as we know, end poverty, although it is credited with reducing it by 20 percent. But it put forth a vision that mobilized people to achieve social change and economic justice.  We are still called to these battles, both by doing what we can for individual families and youth and by supporting the bigger changes that will replace despair with opportunity. 

Thank you all for what you do every day.  Thank you for being our partners. It is our honor, at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, to host this conference, and we take great pleasure in learning from you and sharing the latest and most promising innovations in the fight to end homelessness.

Thank you for joining us here today at our National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness!