Housing the Homeless

Below is an excerpt from the "Overview" section of the CQ Researcher report on "Housing the Homeless" by Peter Katel, December 18, 2009

Leida Ortiz was getting by. She lived with her sister and both of their children in an apartment in Worcester, Mass. Then, in the spring of 2007, her factory-worker father was diagnosed with stomach cancer, so Ortiz moved back into the home her parents owned to help her mother care for her father.

After he died, in December of that year, Ortiz and her mother couldn’t afford the mortgage payments on the house. A move back to her sister’s didn’t work out, so Ortiz and her two children began sharing an apartment with a roommate. But she wasn’t making enough from her part-time job as a nursing assistant to kick in her $400 share of the rent.

The roommate asked her and her 11-year-old son, Joseph, and 5-year-old daughter, Angelina, to leave.

“I became homeless in July,” Ortiz said. “I cried every night, wondering if my kids were going to end up in different schools somewhere else. We were living out of our bags. We didn’t know where we were going to end up next. The kids, they see that you’re stressed, they get stressed. They see you putting yourself to sleep every night crying.”

Speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing held by an advocacy group in early December, Ortiz recounted a happy ending to her family’s two-week stay at a motel. She urged the assembled housing advocates and congressional staffers to work to expand the “prevention and rapid rehousing” program that she credited for her family’s rescue.

Now working three part-time jobs, the 30-year-old Ortiz hardly fits the picture of “homeless” that hit the national consciousness in the early 1980s – seemingly unemployable people suffering mental illness or addiction or both. But in an economic climate shadowed by massive unemployment, some experts see working families facing threats to their housing stability that easily can escalate into homelessness, as in Ortiz’s case. “When you’re going into a recession starting with a limited supply of affordable housing, with families who are precariously housed and at risk, it’s the perfect storm for families,” says Mary K. Cunningham, a housing specialist at the nonpartisan Urban Institute think tank.

In 2008, homelessness among people in families rose by 9 percent over the number from the previous year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported in an annual survey on homelessness.

Overall, about 1.6 million people slept in homeless shelters or other temporary housing in the United States in 2008, the report said. Whether that rough estimate shows an increase or decrease from the 1980s can’t be determined, Cunningham says, given the vast differences in methodology from then until now.

Whatever the case, housing advocates are united in the belief that government action can eliminate homelessness once and for all. Conservatives tend to be more skeptical, though ideology isn’t a reliable guide to views on homelessness.

“It is immoral,” Cheh Kim, a staff member for Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., told the Capitol Hill briefing. “People need to understand that anybody can slip into homelessness. Just go into shelters and talk to people and realize that a lot of them were middle-income, or owned small businesses, and because of one little thing in their life, they just fell down.”

To be sure, Kim’s overall view was that Congress has been responding effectively to the persistence of homelessness. A major piece of evidence: a $1.5 billion appropriation in mid-2009 for a new Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP).

But Joel Segal, a staffer for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., argued at the briefing that congressional attitudes remain an obstacle to a definitive solution to homelessness. “A majority of people in Congress do think that homeless people want to be homeless,” Segal told Kim and the rest of those present. “That’s who they see in the streets pushing the baskets. Trust me on this – they do not know who’s in those shelters, because most members of Congress are raising money from very wealthy donors.’ “

Notwithstanding the staffers’ emphasis on shelters, the growing consensus among advocates for the homeless is that a danger exists of policy makers focusing too heavily on shelters. That approach, they say, would effectively mean continuing to channel mentally unstable and chronically homeless people into shelters instead of expanding a newer strategy of building permanent facilities designed to meet their needs. And families in unstable housing situations – perhaps “doubled up” in relatives’ homes – should be kept out of shelters in the first place.

“What we’ve learned over the past 10 years is that building up a bigger shelter system is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

A number of sources report rising housing instability among families. HUD experts studying present-day trends see a link between the economic crisis and the growing number of families in shelters. The National School Boards Association said in January 2009 that 724 of the country’s nearly 14,000 school districts had already served 75 percent or more of the number of homeless students they’d served during the 2007-2008 school year.

Districts track the trend because the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act requires schools to provide the same level of education to students without fixed addresses as to all other children and youth. Schools can also use grants made under the law to provide homeless students with medical and dental care and other services.

A constellation of other laws authorizes programs designed for the “chronically” homeless, for households who can’t afford decent housing and for veterans without homes.

This year, Congress added new forms of assistance, including the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act for families facing imminent loss of housing or recently made homeless. The law also promotes the construction of so-called “supportive housing” for the long-term homeless, who need mental health services and similar services along with roofs over their heads.

Meanwhile, about 2 million families nationwide receive substantial help in paying their rents under the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, in place since 1974 and revamped in 1998. For many housing advocates, Section 8 vouchers represent a speedy way to expand the supply of affordable housing, the lack of which they view as a major contributor to homelessness.

Some conservative policy experts say the problem isn’t a shortage of affordable housing but deeply rooted poverty – a condition they call ill-suited for resolution by housing subsidies. “The idea that housing is unaffordable and that we’ve done nothing about it – give me a break,” says Howard Husock, vice president of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York think tank. “What we’ve done to make housing more affordable over the past 30 years is so extensive that I would inquire of advocates what more they would have government do.”

Even so, HUD, which administers three of those programs, calculates that a family with one full-time, minimum-wage worker can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country.

As a practical matter, a one-earner family means a household headed by a single mother – the population segment that by all accounts is the most economically and socially vulnerable to deep poverty. The HUD annual report says that families in shelters are typically headed by a single mother.

Ortiz, the once-homeless single mother in Worcester, Mass., says that she was able to start turning her life around only after her city’s housing program helped her find an $850-a-month apartment, which she pays for with the help of a $700 monthly subsidy from the “rapid rehousing” program.

Before that, she says. “I couldn’t get more work hours because of my kids getting out of school at 4:10. I didn’t have anybody reliable enough to drop them off for me or pick them up if I did get a full-time job, and after-school programs cost so much.”

Once she and her family got a place of their own, she found a friend who could pick up the children twice a week, allowing Ortiz to work two part-time jobs as a nursing assistant, and one in a party-supply store. In addition, she’s studying for the GED, planning to then enroll in medical-technology training.

“Things are slowly falling into place for me,” she says. “A shelter would have been no way for my kids to live. It’s not the same as having your house.”

The Issues
* Can government end homelessness?
* Should the definition of homeless include people in unstable housing situations?
* Are housing subsidies the best way to help families facing homelessness?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Housing the Homeless" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.