Nan Roman's remarks to the National Conference on Ending Family Homelessness

written by naehblog
February 18, 2010

The Alliance is back from sunny LA and back at work since the 2010 Ending Family Homelessness Conference ended. We’re working on getting you those presentations – and feel free to let us know if you need anything else! – but in the meantime, check out Nan’s keynote remarks from Thursday, Friday 11, 2010.

Nan Roman
Thursday, Friday 11, 2010
National Conference on Ending Family Homelessness
Los Angeles, CA

Welcome everyone to our conference on ending family homelessness. It is a pleasure being with you today and my colleagues and I appreciate so much your continued efforts to end homelessness. I know that this has been a challenging year for all of us and the effects of the recession have really kicked in. Unemployment is currently hovering around 10% nationally, in some places even higher.

A year ago, the Alliance estimated based on projected 9% unemployment, that homelessness would increase 34% by the end of 2010. Two things have affected this prediction in the past year. First the bad news: unemployment has reached considerably higher levels than the previously predicted 9%. It is not hard to glean that this high rate will result in more poverty, more deep poverty, and more homelessness. Governors around the country are in the process of proposing their 2011 budgets, and the news is grim. As predicted, state and local governments are cutting their budgets as the country enters its third consecutive year in a recession. States face budget shortfalls of $300 billion per year; most will look to cut this amount from their budget. Human services are often early targets when states tighten their belts. At least 29 states have already cut access to health care for low income children or families. Welfare faces the same fate: the governor of Arizona has proposed eliminating cash assistance to 10,000 poor families; in California the governor has proposed eliminating the welfare reform program. Substantial cuts are also being made to education, workforce development, and more. State and local government workforces are also being affected, so we face losing many of our leaders at the state and local levels who are deeply committed to ending homelessness, and to staff who make the programs that we care about work. Cuts like these will not only cause more families to face homelessness, they will severely hamper our ability to address their problems.

The outlook is not entirely grim, however. We have made some significant strides this year, including implementing HUD’s Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing (HPRP) program. If HPRP is well used, it can help counter increases in poverty and homelessness. If it’s not well used, then we face a much more difficult battle ahead. Though still precarious, the housing market is showing some positive indicators. Rental housing costs are going down. HUD reports that the rental housing market was softening as of 2009, with a nationwide increase in the vacancy rate. This rate varies greatly, however, across regions. More vacancies were reported among higher priced units, while vacancies for public housing and LIHTC properties remained low. Vacancies in assisted housing units were slightly higher than those for public housing.

Still, HUD reports that rents remain high. Based on 2008 data, the most recent, the number of households paying more than 50% of their income for housing is 8.7 million, up 5% from 2007. The continued rise in foreclosures and bad economy may have also increased doubling up, which rose 25.3% from 2005 to 2009. These vacancies and doubling up figures do not only reflect low income households, but they do indicate that the affordable housing crisis has not gone away. In short, things remain terribly difficult. We face tremendous challenges in our future.

We must be strategic in our use of resources if we are to help the greatest number of families as efficiently, effectively, and expeditiously as possible. We will need careful foresight: to predict the needs of vulnerable families and to calculate the resources and systems we will have available to us to help those families. I want to talk to you today about where we stand, what has happened since our last families’ conference, what challenges await us, and how can prepare.

One year ago at our conference in San Diego, we were still absorbing the news of HPRP’s funding. The HPRP experience has been an instructive one from several perspectives. In terms of HPRP implementation, I have to extend my sincerest thanks to all of you from around the country who implemented this program in record time, and to HUD. This was an entirely new program, and therefore requires building from the ground up. HUD had to create a regulatory system, NOFAs, applications, etc. They did a terrific job assessing how the recession was affecting communities and how to shape the program accordingly. Those of us who work on homelessness are extremely fortunate that the staff of the SNAPS office is the best office at HUD. They got this program quickly out the door and in good solid form.

The real heavy lifting was done by all of you, who built capacity for prevention, diversion, and rapid re-housing, often without prior experience or proper resources. You found new partners, created new systems, devised new programs, all in an extremely short period of time. While to some it might seem slow—certainly to the families who were or were threatened with homelessness—but it is still amazing that in less than one year, a brand new 1.5 billion dollar program is up and running and helping prevent and end homelessness.

Now it is necessary to fine-tune HPRP based on our experiences over the past year. Because the HPRP funds went out in October of last year, jurisdictions have only just begun to use them. We don’t yet know what the full impact of HPRP has been or will be.

I want to share some preliminary thoughts on HPRP’s impact nationally and what we recommend you should be thinking about for local programs as you move forward. We previously predicted that, if nothing were done, homelessness would go up 35% from January 2009 to January 2011 due to the recession – 1.5 million more people would be homeless. Certainly, HPRP was never going to be able to help that many people – at best, if perfectly targeted, it would help less than half. We do not yet have the national data for 2009, and certainly not for the January counts this year, so we do not know what the impact of the recession was a year ago, much less now, in terms of the overall national number of homeless people. We do, however, have some information on the impacts of the recession.

First, we know that in the 2009 counts, some places saw increases—fairly significant increases—in homelessness, but many places did not. We know that homelessness tends to be a lagging indicator and that counts can be imprecise. But still it is interesting that the picture is quite varied. We are working with a group of 9 cities, most of which have the highest homeless counts – about 150,000 PIT. For these cities, between 2007 and 2009, homelessness overall went down slightly. Family homelessness, on the other hand, increased 10%. The AHAR findings for 2008 reflect similar numbers, sparking a particular concern that families are being affected adversely by the economy.

Although there is no national data yet on HPRP, we have some data from these 9 cities, and we have an anecdotal sense of what is going on from our intensive contact over the past 12 months with jurisdictions all around the country that are implementing HPRP. In those 9 cities (DC, NYC, LA, Chicago, Houston, Seattle, Portland, Columbus, New Orleans, Miami), which participate with us on a Leadership Council, twice as much money is being spent on housing services as on financial assistance to families. Our first sense is that there is more prevention being done that rapid re-housing, and that prevention dollars go out the door faster than rapid re-housing dollars. This concerns us somewhat, because it is much harder to properly target prevention activities than it is to target rapid re-housing or diversion activities. The closer you get to the door of the shelter, the more certain you are that a family will actually become homeless if they do not have the assistance – with the only certainty being, or course, when the family is already homeless.

It is definitely the case that we want to prevent homelessness, and definitely the case that we need to learn a lot more about prevention. But we are very concerned that a lot of prevention resources are not being very well targeted. We hear from many communities that they are targeting prevention assistance to people who just lost a job or just got foreclosed upon, or they’re only giving it to people who will quickly be self-sufficient again. Or they’re giving it to people at 50% of Area Median Income. However, very few people who have just lost their jobs or just had their houses foreclosed upon, or whose incomes are at 50% of AMI are going to become homeless – in fact, almost none. Data shows us that only a small fraction of people who are living at half the poverty level and receive an eviction notice become homeless. Most people having a housing crisis will never become homeless. If you give HPRP money primarily to families that have very little likelihood of becoming homeless, despite the fact that they may have needs, you will not prevent any homelessness.

Why is this happening? Sometimes it’s because of local politics. Sometimes we hear that HUD is the cause, because HUD insists that the money go to people who will be self-sufficient when after assistance, and that HUD wants to see good outcomes. And of course HUD wants you to strive for good outcomes. You want good outcomes, we want good outcomes – everyone wants good outcomes. The good outcome we want is preventing homelessness. Just succeeding in giving the money away is not a good outcome. HPRP money has already been distributed. You can afford to take some risks and do good prevention without jeopardizing future funding from HUD. HUD is not going to be asking for money back because you tried to focus more on prevention and some of the families became homeless again. We are spending a lot on prevention and we could probably be doing a better job of targeting it. If your prevention activities are 100% successful—no one you give money to ever becomes homeless—you are probably not preventing any homelessness. You may not be reaching the people who are likely to become homeless.

I will further say that the closer you move prevention to the front door of the shelter system, the more successful your program is going to be. In other words, the more imminent homelessness is, the more successful you will be in preventing it. I know this is difficult, because none of us want to put families through the terrible experience of approaching homelessness. But the farther we move away from the shelter door, the less success we are going to have at preventing homelessness. If you are spending a lot of prevention funds, and your shelter census is going up, you should certainly think about whether at least part of the problem is that your prevention program is just not preventing homelessness, and make the proper adjustments.

On rapid re-housing, this is of course helping the families after they become homeless, and as such it is extremely effective. Spending out on rapid re-housing is slow. Data from our Leadership Cities shows that only 8% of the households that they expect to serve with rapid re-housing have been served, versus 10% of the prevention households. Our anecdotal sense is that the disparity is even greater in other cities, and that prevention is spending out much faster.

Communities doing rapid re-housing often have concerns about the ability of families to do well when their rent assistance has expired. They are concerned about sustainability. In fact, the vast majority of families that become homeless currently leave the homelessness system with no rent subsidy and no appreciable increase in income. They figure out some way to address their housing, they leave, and they do not come back. Any rent subsidy, first and last months rent, etc. would be a huge boon to the vast majority of families that exit homelessness. Would a Section 8 be better? Yes, it would. But since we don’t have enough Section 8’s I am perplexed as to why we think that giving the families more than they are currently getting is such a risky proposition.

We do need to think, however, about the families for whom this doesn’t work. It is incumbent upon us to create a system that will catch those families for whom a less than permanent rent subsidy is not sufficient. While data indicates that the majority of families will be OK with less than a Section 8, there are some who will not. We need a system that catches these families before they fall back into homelessness, and gives them a second, a third, a fourth, fifth and sixth shot at assistance.

All in all, then, despite the fact that we don’t have a lot of data regarding increases in homelessness due to the recession, or the impact of HPRP, we have been in touch with a great many communities and HUD. And we feel that we can say that the implementation effort has been exceptional. You have created a system and built capacity very rapidly, and the money is starting to flow. Now we can kick that feedback loop into gear to try to improve our efforts: consider your data; look again at your prevention targeting; and check the success and follow-up of your re-housing efforts. Re-set your HPRP program.

This leads us to considering what lies ahead in the next few years in terms of homelessness, because what we learn from HPRP will be important. Looking first at the big picture, we all know that although the recession has ended, unemployment remains through the roof, especially among poorer people and in poorer communities. Since homelessness is a lagging indicator, we still expect it grow. This will be exacerbated by cuts to state and local governments, which will continue. It may be additionally exacerbated by federal government cuts, which loom.

I am sure that you know by now that the Obama Administration’s budget requested a 10% increase in the Homeless Assistance Grant program at HUD, plus an exciting new proposal for 10,000 new collaborative vouchers to link up housing with services from the VA and HHS. Other homeless programs also faired well in the President’s budget. This increase is really the result of all the hard work you have done to continually improve your programs.

You may also know that overall the HUD budget was cut, and that there is discussion of a freeze on discretionary spending, which could result in many other cuts to social programs. The federal spigot may soon be shut off.

It’s not likely that there will be a lot of outside relief or improvements in the underlying economy or federal government investments. Several federal developments will certainly have an impact in the future. One is the sunset of the HPRP program, and its morphing to the implementation of the HEARTH Act. Another is the creation of the Federal Plan to End Homelessness.

The Alliance is striving to obtain an additional $1 billion for HPRP in the upcoming jobs bills. We have made a strong case for these funds not only because of their impact on homelessness, but also in terms of the jobs they create, and the fact that stable housing is a platform that is necessary for people to obtain and retain employment. It’s going to be a difficult struggle and certainly not something we can count on.

The HPRP focus on prevention and rapid re-housing match up perfectly with the HEARTH Act, which has an additional focus on outcomes and data. It is essential, then, that we use the relative flexibility of HPRP to fine tune our prevention and re-housing systems and build our capacity for the HEARTH Act. This is particularly important in several areas:

The first is assessment; it’s about getting smarter and more consistent in how we assess people’s needs and how we direct them to the programs or interventions that meet those needs. Our community-wide system should be less about what program door someone happens to walk in; and more focused on being strategic across the community.

The second area is targeting. Because resources are so scarce we need to use them wisely. We cannot afford to deliver services or subsidies to people who don’t absolutely need them to end their homelessness.

Having a system that catches families that don’t succeed with lighter interventions is the third area. If we have the ability to follow up with families to make sure that what we provided has worked, we will have less anxiety about giving them something less than the most intensive intervention at the outset.

Partnership is key. In addition to HPRP and other homeless funding, there is a great big pool of federal resources that should be helping prevent and end homelessness for families. I am talking about TANF, Head Start, child welfare, WEA, Medicaid and Medicare, social security, and much more. Some jurisdictions have successfully used HPRP to create bridges to these other programs. The new federal collaborative vouchers attempt to do this. We will not end homelessness without these bigger resources.

Finally, the capacity you have built around prevention and rapid re-housing will be critically important. The federal plan is also an opportunity to have a reliable federal partner besides SNAPS, move across cylinders, implement your local Ten Year Plans. Over the next few days, from keynote speakers and at workshops, you will hear much more about these issues: HPRP, HEARTH, prevention, re-housing, targeting, partnership, and assessment.

I will summarize by again thanking those at the federal, state and local levels who have used HPRP to create lasting change. You have brought plans to end homelessness to life and have allowed our communities to finally do prevention and get people back into housing faster. You have used HPRP to leverage new funds and relationships from programs like the TANF emergency contingency fund, and Early Head Start.

I encourage you to continue using HPRP funds to get outside of your safety zone – not stay inside it. You have some flexibility – use it. You will have to target your prevention and other efforts more tightly if you are to succeed in HEARTH.

I also encourage you to continue to challenge old “truths” – that there is no affordable housing; that without permanent subsidies families cannot be housed; that prevention should only be targeted to families that look very likely to succeed in order to avoid “wasting” resources. Of course these “truths” come from a base of real problems, but community after community has found that even where there is no affordable housing, families find places to live; that while permanent subsidies are great, almost all homeless families get housed and stay housed without them; that families are a lot more resilient than we think and prevention programs can help those who look hopeless pull together the most amazing things with only a little flexible money.

This is a good time to be bold in risk taking and experimenting, and indeed many of you are pushing the envelope on prevention and rapid re-housing. This will stand you in very good stead as we move forward.

I applaud the new models and collaborations that are necessary for the long term sustainability of your efforts to end family homelessness. Partnerships with mainstream programs like Early Head Start, TANF and child welfare will prevent and end homelessness for families into the future. More innovation and creativity is needed. Much more remains to be done, because the years ahead will be difficult for the families that we care about and for our programs. Our conference has an absolute wealth of resources and examples to give you from the communities across the country doing the most exciting work.

Thank you all, so much, for coming. We look forward to learning more about what you are doing, and to working together toward our goal of ending homelessness among families.