"FOR CHANGES TO BE OF ANY TRUE VALUE, THEY'VE GOT TO BE LASTING AND CONSISTENT."
Unless you work in the nonprofit housing aid sector, you’re probably unaware June 30, 2016 marked the end of an era.
In the 32 years I have spent with the Center for Family Resources, I have seen programs and policies come and go with shifting ideologies. This time, I’m having to say goodbye to one of the most effective and successful programs we’ve had, and one which has been a staple for CFR and organizations like us for decades. I’ve learned through the years that legislated ideas about how best to end poverty and homelessness have a tendency to change, and not always for the better.
For the past couple of years, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has been steadily shifting its priorities – and its funding – away from transitional housing, a program that we’ve seen firsthand have tremendous, lasting success for hundreds of Cobb families. Instead, federal focus has now shifted to a Rapid Re-Housing program, which aims to move clients into a new home immediately, without long-term follow-up and support. While I understand the rationale behind HUD’s changes, I am dismayed by the likely long-term ramifications for our clients, and for the housing and homelessness nonprofit sector as a whole. This change is not just affecting CFR and Cobb County; there are homeless shelters and transitional housing programs across the country that no longer have the funding to meet their clients’ needs.
For decades, the HUD-funded transitional housing program was a staple for CFR, and for organizations like us across the country. We have long been reliant upon its grant monies to help our families move into stability. With these changes coming to a head as the funding for transitional housing ran dry on June 30, we’ve had to make the difficult decision to jettison that program as a whole.
On the strictly monetary side, our budget has been severely strained since learning that this program is dissolving. Because it is a reimbursable program, the lag in new Rapid Re-Housing contracts during this changeover is causing a shortfall for us and other organizations like us. In the meantime, providing the cost of housing for our clients has been a real challenge, and we've had to find other grants to fill that gap.
In terms of how we serve our clients, this program change is worrying. On the surface, the idea sounds good. Just like its name, Rapid Re-Housing seeks to get homeless families into apartments immediately, and what’s more, requires they obtain leases for these apartments in their own name. I fully understand the Rapid Re-Housing concept that we move people as quickly as possible into their own home. Getting people off the street is always a priority. And it’s a laudable goal that families rent their own apartment in their names. But, we’re not giving families enough time to get the skills, tools and resources to become sustainable. And, in my experience, asking clients to obtain a lease in their own name is actually making the “rapid” program take longer to get people housed in the first place.
Right now, rent costs are rising nearly three times as fast as household incomes. In Metro Atlanta alone, more than a quarter of renters are severely “housing cost burdened”, meaning that just paying the rent takes up more than 50 percent of their income. Federal programs alone cannot meet these needs. For a 24% increase in poverty and a 21% increase in the number of extremely low-income households, there has been an increase of less than 3% in the number of housing units available in primary public housing programs. And, for every 10 of those units available, there are 15 families on the waiting list.
I know the federal government’s goal is to be able to say they made a substantial dent in homelessness. And with these new guidelines for Rapid Re-Housing, they certainly will be able to say that. And you know what? I think the program will work. I think we’re going to see good results, but only for a little while. But how long will people remain stable in their new homes, without long-term supportive services?
Unlike with our transitional housing program, these apartments that Rapid Re-Housing pays to get clients into are not stepping stones to a stable life, but the endgame of the program itself. While the HUD funds cover the costs of getting an apartment, Rapid Re-Housing puts all of the onus on clients to find that place to live. And, most difficult of all is that the apartment must be leased in the client’s own name. You cannot imagine how arduous it can be for our clients to simply find landlords who will take them. With transitional housing, it was CFR’s name on the lease, and landlords knew they would be getting paid through us. We had longstanding relationships with local landlords, and we knew we could find a place for clients to go. In our current climate of high rental demand where landlords can afford to be picky, they’re incredibly reluctant to accept clients that may have an eviction history, or poor credit, or a criminal record, even though those clients still have our financial backing. Sometimes clients will still owe back-payments from previous rentals. Most often, they do not earn the standard three times the rental rate most landlords require. Without our name on the lease, there’s really no incentive for landlords to accept our clients, especially when they have the option to fill units with applicants that meet their requirements without third party support. We have clients waiting. We’re ready to write the checks and get them housed. But they keep getting turned away.
Secondly, for those clients lucky enough to find a landlord to rent to them, there is the nagging problem of longevity. Rapid Re-Housing makes the assumption that once people are in an apartment, they will be able to maintain that new place indefinitely, with the eventual goal of finding an even better living situation. Rapid Re-Housing funds will get a client into an apartment, and cover the rent payments for up to six months. But I know from my years here that it’s precisely at that point clients need the most support.
I’ve had more than enough time to see firsthand that an agency cannot simply deposit a family in an apartment and wash their hands of the situation. My favorite way to describe how CFR can effect change is this: You can't be what you can't see. Many of our clients have never envisioned themselves as living any other way beside paycheck-to-paycheck. It's our job to help them see themselves in that new light, and to give them the confidence to believe that they deserve to live a better life. It's no surprise that our clients often have structured habits that must be learned and fear-based beliefs that must be unlearned. Folks are simply not equipped to jump forward on their own. Neither we at CFR, nor the federal government – despite how well-meaning they may be – can expect people to be instantly turned around; our clients need a period of time to see what a stable life looks like on the other side of homelessness and poverty.
That’s what made our transitional housing program – and CFR as a whole – so effective: we don’t abandon our clients after they find a place to live. Our mission is all-encompassing, and our case managers become invested in the long-term financial and emotional well-being of our clients. We make sure they’re finding new jobs or advancing in their current positions. We require participation in financial literacy and budgeting classes. Our entire model is built around a holistic support system for the whole being; having to prioritize a federal program that does not help us provide that long-term support is incredibly disheartening.
I will always think fondly of our transitional housing program, and wish that it were still in effect. There are hundreds of families who were lifted out of poverty in Cobb County thanks to that program. It was especially rewarding back in the 90s when the economy was good and there were many folks then that actually went from our transitional housing program to owning a home.
One story stands out to me, though. There was one young lady – a store manager at TJMaxx – who, when given the chance to recommend an organization for a corporate grant, reached out to us specifically because her mother had gone through our transitional housing program. It changed their lives and gave both her mother and herself the opportunity to be successful. This young lady kept coming back for years to give to CFR because of that connection and the gratitude she felt. That was one of the most rewarding things about transitional housing; you got to see the long-term effects, and people internalized those effects.
In short, I’m not sure what this HUD funding change means for the future of CFR and other organizations like us. Transitional housing was not a cure-all for everyone, of course, but it worked well. We had great outcomes and successful client stories because families don’t find themselves in a crisis overnight. We will always believe that it is important for our clients to have the skills, the tools and the resources to go forward; we can provide those wraparound supportive services, but that takes time. And time is something that we’re no longer being given.