The National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness convened in Los Angeles last week. It was great to see our sector so well represented at an event that provided the opportunity to learn so much about what’s happening in the field.
The National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness convened in Los Angeles last week. In addition to a broad range of sophisticated and fully engaged providers, advocates, and consumers, the conference was well-attended by philanthropic grantmakers from Washington D.C., Phoenix, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and even London. It was great to see our sector so well represented at an event that provided the opportunity to learn so much about what’s happening in the field.
The conference was hosted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which deserves a strong shout out, not only for organizing an excellent conference with a great set of engaging workshops, but for setting a positive, productive tone about what we have accomplished and the work that still lies ahead. In the current fiscal climate, the gathering could easily have turned into a depressing, hand-wringing festival of frustration with past and looming budget reductions and continuing programmatic cutbacks. But, thanks to a great structure and optimistic participants, the conference never went there. Instead, attendees focused their energy and attention on how to make the best possible use of the resources that will be available, and how to move ambitious systems change agendas forward in the midst of extremely difficult times.
Rapid Re-housing the First Step to Exiting Poverty
As someone who has been attending this conference for many years, one message in particular stood out for me: Rapid re-housing works. More specifically, according to remarks made by NAEH’s Nan Roman: Results from the federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Act found that rapid re-housing, combined with progressive interventions that provide families with the minimum level of tailored supports they need to stabilize, successfully keeps families housed 80-90% of the time, at a cost that is one-fifth to one-sixth that of traditional shelter and transitional housing.
As we absorb the significance of these results, much of what many of us have been funding and doing for the last decade must be thrown into question and put up for discussion. We may think transitional housing offers the best pathways out of homelessness for most families. Some of us may still believe in the concept of “housing readiness” and the 24 months it takes “to help teach a family how to be a family again.” But the numbers speak very differently: The vast majority of homeless families are ready and able to stabilize after a much lighter touch. The latest data suggest that most families are struggling more with the blunt force of homelessness itself than they are with an inability to function effectively as a family.
This doesn’t mean that a small proportion of families–perhaps 10-20%—facing more severe issues and ongoing, disabling conditions don’t benefit from interventions such as permanent supportive housing. These families, like single adults who have experienced long-term homelessness, may need intensive supports over the long haul to stay housed. But permanent supportive housing does not appear to be what most families need to stabilize, and represents a level of investment for families without these disabling conditions that is both inefficient and less effective.
Certainly, rapid re-housing does not solve the larger issue of poverty for families that can be stabilized with this intervention. Housing stability does not mean economic stability. But a consistent place to call home is an essential building block for families seeking to exit poverty. Families who have been rapidly re-housed will benefit from a range of ongoing mainstream supports (education, child care, job training, employment placement, etc.) that can help pave the path to economic success over time. Our efforts must seek to link them to this type of continuing assistance, which is largely the responsibility of mainstream systems to provide.
The lessons we’re learning have significant implications for all of us as funders. If we’re seeking to fund what works for families experiencing homelessness–if we want to use good data to drive sound decision-making about our resources–we need to understand the results being achieved through the rapid re-housing model. As fond of our historical grant portfolios as we may be, making progress will mean giving up some of what many of us have believed to be the best practices. Making progress will mean working with our grantees to understand the importance of the latest rapid re-housing data and the need to embrace new models that may require changes in our most basic approaches to the issues.
In an era of highly constrained resources, the choices we need to make are clear: We will do our best work when we apply our sector’s limited funds to interventions that offer the best possible results for families struggling with homelessness. We owe our communities, and the families touched by our investments, nothing less.
For more information, presentation materials, transcripts, and videos from the conference are being posted on the National Alliance website.
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.