HRI Spring/Summer Research Newsletter


Newsletters | July 8, 2010

HRI Logo w/ NAEH

Quarterly Research Newsletter
Focus On Homeless Prevention
Spring/Summer 2010
In This Issue:
NYC Prevention Evaluation
Doubled Up Map
Q&A with Beth Shinn
HPRP Spending Chart
Housing Affordability
By The Numbers 
Percent of those discharged from HPRP prevention programs who were discharged to known permanent housing destinations, as reporting in the Alliance's Quarterly Leadership Council HPRP Report.
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The Alliance's Homelessness Research Institute (HRI) is pleased to release the Spring/Summer 2010 edition of the Quarterly Research Newsletter. This issue focuses on homelessness prevention and features an Expert Q&A with Beth Shinn, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Human and Organizational Behavior at Vanderbilt University and member of the Alliance's Research Council, who responds to questions about the importance of targeting homelessness prevention resources.

We also summarize the recent evaluation of a New York City prevention program, review recent reports on housing affordability in the U.S., and offer the regular research newsletter features: Interactive Map, Interactive Chart, and By The Numbers
Evaluating Homelessness Prevention in New York
Last month, Seedco and the United Way of New York City released the results of an evaluation of a homelessness prevention program targeted at low income families facing eviction - the Housing Help Program (HHP). The study reports on the outcomes of 1,059 families that received a combination of legal, benefits, and social services intended to prevent evictions and subsequent shelter entry. HHP differs from other eviction prevention models applied in New York City and elsewhere in its emphasis on early intervention, location in the court house, team-based approach, inclusion of a social worker, and access to long-term social services. The evaluation found that 91 percent of the families served by HHP achieved positive court or housing outcomes and that just fewer than six percent were known to have entered shelter in the three years following their participation in the program.

The report also includes an interesting cost-benefit analysis that attempts to assess the degree to which the program not only prevented evictions but also prevented homelessness that would have occurred without the program. Such an analysis is critical to evaluating the success of prevention efforts. While the study did not include a control group (the preferred approach to addressing this question), the evaluators compared the shelter entry outcomes of the 1,059 HHP participants to the outcomes of those receiving the anti-eviction services of another New York City program. The comparison revealed that 51 of the 1,059 families served by HHP would have entered shelter without the program, resulting in an estimated annual cost savings of $737,376. An additional analysis confirmed the incremental economic benefit of the inclusion of a social worker on the HHP team.

Click here to download the report as a PDF.

Interactive Map: Doubled Up State by State
Doubled Up Map The Alliance research brief Economic Bytes: Doubled up in the United States estimates that there are 4.85 million people (individuals and persons in families) living in housing units with extended family, friends, and other non-relatives due to economic hardship, earning no more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level. This map shows how many of the 4.85 million reside in each of the 50 states. Click here to view the Interactive Map.
Expert Q&A with Mary Beth Shinn, PhD
Beth Shinn Mary Beth Shinn, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University. Her research includes several important studies on the prevention of homelessness, including an examination of targeting homelessness prevention services in New York City. She has been a member of the Alliance's Research Council since its inception and joined us for an expert Q&A on homelessness prevention. Click here to see a list of selected publications, including publications mentioned in this Q&A.
Alliance: Because of HPRP and the new provisions in the reauthorization of McKinney Vento, homelessness prevention is now a federally funded homeless assistance function.  How important is this to the fight to end homelessness??

Shinn: Potentially it is very important.  If infusions of cash or services can prevent homelessness among populations at high risk, such as youth aging out of foster care, or adults leaving prisons or mental hospitals, this could lead to savings in both human and monetary costs.  Similarly, if families who would otherwise become homeless could avoid that painful and disruptive state, that would be very good news. But these are big "ifs." It is encouraging that 74 percent of the 15,869 people who have exited prevention programs have gone to permanent housing, but we don't really know whether homelessness has been permanently prevented or merely postponed, or how many of these people would not have become homeless in any case. I look forward to rigorous research on HPRP prevention efforts, so that we will all know how well they work.

Alliance: You've written about the importance of effective targeting of prevention resources.  Why is this so critical?
Shinn:  Not all programs that prevent homelessness need to be targeted.  Indeed, programs that shore up incomes among poor people doubtless prevent a lot of homelessness.  Social security retirement benefits have reduced poverty among older Americans, and are one reason that homelessness among older people is low.  The earned income tax credit and increases in the minimum wage have made housing affordable for some families who could not otherwise have paid the rent.  When health reform is fully implemented it will prevent some homelessness in the wake of catastrophic illnesses. The Study of Housing Vouchers for Welfare Families showed clearly (in a random assignment study) that section 8 vouchers prevent homelessness for families lucky enough to get them. Indeed, we can probably attribute the lower rates of homelessness in Western Europe than in the United States to Europe's more generous social welfare programs. However, all of these programs are justified on grounds other than homelessness prevention.  When the government directs public resources to homelessness prevention, it wants to know that rates of homelessness will be lower than they would otherwise have been.  That means either focusing resources on community stabilization and development in communities that generate a lot of homelessness or getting a large portion of the resources to households who would otherwise become homeless.  Figuring out who those people are is what is meant by targeting.  We could raise HPRP's rate of exits to permanent housing to 90 or 95 percent overnight, simply by giving the funds to people who don't need them to remain housed. Success rates might look higher, but less homelessness would be prevented. And I worry that some prevention programs essentially do just that, "creaming" people who could manage on their own, and avoiding people who are worse off.

Targeting is hard, especially in the case of families, because families who become homeless look a lot like other poor families who just manage to get by. A number of years ago my colleagues and I tried to build a model that would predict which families receiving public assistance in New York City would become homeless, so the City could prevent this from happening.  Our best model, with some 20 predictors, could correctly identify two-thirds of families entering shelter by targeting 10 percent of the public assistance caseload.  From a research perspective, that is pretty good, but from a practical perspective it was not very useful, because the 10 percent applied to the very large number of families receiving welfare benefits, whereas the 66 percent applied to the much smaller group entering shelter shelter.  We calculated that if New York City followed the model, 80 percent of its prevention funds would go to families who would not otherwise become homeless. The funds might have done useful things for needy people, but they would not have prevented much homelessness. Targeting is easier for populations at high risk, and some populations, such as youth aging out of foster care, are at such high risk that it makes sense to offer services to all of them.

Alliance: Data from HUD reveals that communities are doing more prevention than rapid re-housing as a part of HPRP.  What do you make of this emphasis on prevention over rapid re-housing?

Shinn: Everyone who works to end homelessness would love to truly end it, so that no one ever has to undergo the ordeal.  Programs for people who are already homeless are costly, and one can often look back and say, if only some resource had been available, a given individual or family could have avoided this state.  Prevention is usually cheaper, if we count only the amount of money spent on a given household. And if prevention were perfectly targeted and perfectly effective, it would be a very good deal indeed, for both service recipients and society.  Of course prevention will never be either perfectly targeted or perfectly effective. That's why we need more research, ideally studies where people deemed at risk are randomly assigned to receive prevention services or not, and followed over time to see how they fare. Only then will we know how well prevention services work, and how it makes sense to allocate resources between prevention and rapid re-housing.

Interactive Chart: HPRP PER Household Spending
HPRP Spending ChartThe Alliance's Quarterly Leadership Council HPRP Report: January - March 2010 illustrates how HPRP programs in 13 cities have used over $20 million assisting over 24,000 households experiencing homelessness or risk of homelessness. This interactive chart shows prevention and rapid re-housing spending per household for the 13 cities included in the report. Click here to view the Interactive Map.
Policy-Driven Research: Housing Affordability
Housing affordability is an important public policy issue and one that directly affects homelessness. While there are other factors, homelessness is mainly caused by a lack of access to affordable housing. Many policy-focused organizations develop their research strategies around the reality that there is an affordable housing shortage.  Two reports have recently been released on housing affordability and each contribute evidence that affordable housing for low-income families is in short supply. 
State of the Nations Housing
The State of the Nation's Housing, released annually by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, assesses the American housing market for the past year. In 2008, the bottom quartile of households had a median income of $14,868.  For those households, the report points out, monthly housing costs (including utilities) over $372 are considered unaffordable (when applying the 30 percent of income affordability standard).  But it is difficult to find rent at that rate anywhere in the country. With rents at that level, and without government subsidies, property owners have difficulty covering operating and maintenance costs, let alone gaining a reasonable rate of return on their investment.  The report also illustrates the progressive deterioration of housing affordability over time, showing how moderate and severe housing cost burden (spending more than 30 percent and 50 percent of income on housing, respectively) has increased every year since 2002.

Out of Reach
Out of Reach, released each year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), is another report that examines housing affordability among renters in the United States. Specifically, NLIHC examines how much a household must earn to reasonably afford the most modest housing unit and whether a worker earning minimum wage could afford such housing. According to NLIHC, a household would have to earn at least $38,360 to reasonably afford a two-bedroom apartment at the national average fair market rent in 2010. This translates into an hourly "housing wage" of $18.44. (A housing wage is the hourly rate that a worker needs to earn to be able to reasonably afford a modest housing unit.) This housing wage exceeds the average hourly wage of renters ($14.44) and is almost double the national hourly minimum wage ($7.25). Despite recent increases in the minimum wage, there is still no county in the United States where a one-bedroom unit is affordable to a full-time worker earning minimum wage. Also, there are no projected increases to the minimum wage so it is likely that the gap between the housing wage and minimum wage will widen further next year.

In sum, these studies suggest housing affordability for low-income families continues to deteriorate, which warrants a careful examination by leaders and legislators. Ensuring an adequate supply of affordable housing for our most vulnerable neighbors is an effective strategy in both preventing and reducing homelessness.