Ending Family Homelessness: Learning from Massachusetts

written by naehblog
May 19, 2010
We tweeted it our and we posted it on our Wall and now we’re ready to chat about it further.
As you already know, we found a paper called “Reducing Family Homelessness in Massachusetts.”
Noted homelessness scholar – and co-chairman of our Research Council - Dr. Dennis Culhane was commissioned to investigate ways to improve the Emergency Assistance program in Massachusetts. The goal was the identify ways to more effectively and efficiently help families experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness - without investing more budget resources in the program.
And you know what? Dr. Culhane and his research assistant Thomas Byrne managed to do just that. The pair recommended two primary ways to improve the performance of the Emergency Assistance program:
1. Increase flexibility in both eligibility and levels of service based on individual need.
2. Focus on reducing the time families spend in emergency shelter, by requiring a shelter exit and self-sufficiency plan as a condition of receiving services.
Dr. Culhane and Byrne also prescribed a number of shifts in thinking and practice to help guide the work and efficiency of the EA system.
What's interesting about Massachusetts is that the state is already making considerable headway towards ending homelessness - and is doing so in a comprehensive way. As the writers point out in their paper, Gov. Deval Patrick's Special Commission Relative to Ending Homelessness has already developed a plan to end homelessness in the state, and a special interagency commission exists to implement that plan. The special interagency commission has created partnerships with regional networks in the state, to ensure that services and systems are coordinated and reaching vulnerable areas.
Emphasizing this idea, Byrne noted, "One of the most interesting things about Massachusetts is that some providers in the state are already having great success in implementing some of the strategies that we present in the paper as effective alternatives to emergency shelter.  This is just one of several reasons why Massachusetts is in a particularly good position to adopt some these strategies on a larger scale and truly change how it approaches family homelessness."
Still, Massachusetts also demonstrates that even the most advanced of states often require guidance to refine and strengthen their existing systems.
Byrne adds, "However, to craft a new approach that is better at meeting the unique needs of families, a number of challenges facing the current system need to be addressed.  The existing system offers limited alternatives to families beyond emergency shelter, which, as we suggest in the paper, is not always necessary or effective in terms of helping families resolve their housing crises.  Instead, families need to have access to more flexible forms of assistance.  The key is figuring out how to assess a family’s need and provide them with just the right amount of assistance—not too little and not too much. Fortunately, in talking with some of the people in Massachusetts who are working hard every day to end family homelessness, it is clear that they are committed to figuring out how best to make progress towards that goal."
Now, when we initially introduced this paper to our social networks, we got a few comments and concerns about the recommendations.
Pulling from our Facebook page:
We had the rare opportunity to send those thoughts to the authors of the report. And Byrne, very graciously, emailed back!
"I think the commenter raises some valid points.  It is true that there are not enough permanent subsidies to go around.  Regrettably, in Massachusetts and in much of the country, the long waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers suggest that the will and/or resources to provide everyone with a housing subsidy are not there.  Nonetheless, it is cheaper to provide a family with a subsidy for a year than for them to stay in shelter for a year.  There is a telling graph in our paper that plots the dramatic increase in expenditures on shelter in Massachusetts and the corresponding dramatic decrease in funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program.  As we suggest, if there is a shift in Massachusetts away from a reliance on shelter, it could free up resources that could potentially be used to reverse this trend and dedicate more resources towards permanent and short-term rental subsidies.  On the other hand, if no changes are made to the current system and its cost continues to grow, there will likely be even fewer resources for permanent subsidies.

The commenter is also correct that not all families will be able to transition off of a short term rental subsidy.  Indeed, some, although likely not the majority, will require longer term and more intensive support.  This underscores the importance of assessing family need and appropriately calibrating assistance to meet that need.  When resources are finite, it is important to provide the most intensive interventions like permanent subsidies to families with the greatest needs and the less intensive interventions to families with less intensive needs.  In the paper we discuss different models for doing so, including establishing multiple eligibility criteria for different levels of assistance."
As part of their solutions, Dr. Culhane and Byrne offer some basic principles to help communities focus on ending homelessness through their homeless assistance programs:
What do you think of these suggestions? What do you think of these principles? Don't you think it was awesome that we were able to ask your questions to the researchers?
Let us know what you think,  here, on Facebook, on Twitter - whatever works for you!