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Transforming Public Housing into Supportive Communities

A new report entitled, Inclusive Public Housing: Services for the Hard to House presents fascinating new findings regarding the service needs and vulnerability of families living in public housing. 

A new report entitled, Inclusive Public Housing: Services for the Hard to House, released last week on March 3rd by Brett Theodos, Susan Popkin, and colleagues at the Urban Institute presents fascinating new findings regarding the service needs and vulnerability of families living in public housing. In the report, the authors find that families living in distressed public housing fall within three categories of need: younger “striving” families and residents who with basic assistance can achieve self-sufficiency and re-connection to the workforce; “aging and distressed” families who have lived in public housing and poverty for many years and who now have multiple physical and medical challenges; and families who are “high-risk,” with complex health and social challenges and who, without adequate supports, will become tomorrow’s “aging and distressed” families.

These findings are from a research demonstration initiative called the Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration, led by the Urban Institute, in partnership with Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). In the Chicago demonstration, the most vulnerable of CHA’s public housing residents are identified and provided with wrap-around supportive services using a case management model. These services feature low client-to-case manager ratios, a flexible approach founded on engagement and motivational interviewing, and a “do whatever it takes” philosophy to help families stay housed and achieve their maximum potential. Sound familiar? It should: it’s a services approach not unlike that used in Permanent Supportive Housing.

I have been following the work of Sue Popkin since 2007, when I had the opportunity to serve on a panel with her at a Grantmakers-in-Health conference workshop focused on the links between housing and healthcare. I presented on supportive housing models that helped improve the health trajectories and shift services use patterns from costly “band-aid” emergency services to coordinated care for chronically homeless people discharged from hospitals or who are frequent users of health services. Sue presented her preliminary findings from her HOPE VI panel study, as well as from the study of CHA public housing residents. Hearing Sue’s presentation, it struck me that we at CSH had forgotten about one of the major vehicles by which homeless families obtain housing: Public Housing.

In most communities, families experiencing homelessness are given preference or priority for Public Housing and Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers. As a result, in many places, homeless families represent the majority of families who enter public housing. This means that public housing is not only the nation’s largest source of affordable housing, but is also one of our nation’s largest, if unrecognized, sources of housing for the homeless. Viewed another way, public housing is, and has always been, a parallel system for housing and ending homelessness among families with children. However, in most cases, public housing has served in this capacity without the dedicated service supports (beyond the heroic but beleaguered Resident Services Coordinator model) needed to keep formerly homeless families stably housed. The Chicago Demonstration holds the promise for filling this gap.

With this context in mind, we should review the Urban Institute’s report as providing valuable insights regarding the service needs of homeless families, perhaps helping us to answer that lingering question: “Which homeless families need Permanent Supportive Housing and which families need other less-intensive interventions to permanently exit homelessness?” Moreover, we can also understand the Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration as the prototype for a new and promising approach for creating permanent supportive housing, in which intensive supportive services are “retrofitted” into existing public housing or linked to Housing Choice Vouchers and targeted towards the most vulnerable residents.

The Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration stands at the place where the futures of Public Housing and Supportive Housing intersect, a future that may see the emergence of a new approach known as “supportive communities.” To meet the needs of its vulnerable residents, Public Housing must be integrated with flexible and client-centered housing-based supportive services, and strategies must be developed for underwriting the cost of these services both through new funding appropriations and partnerships with mainstream services agencies. The Supportive Housing industry and the national movement to end homelessness should recognize that while many vulnerable and formerly homeless families have obtained public and assisted housing, they are struggling to stay housed without adequate services, and that Public Housing Authorities are key allies and partners in the effort to end and prevent homelessness.

Recognizing the convergence of these futures, CSH, the Urban Institute, and Heartland Alliance are currently exploring a national initiative modeled after the Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration in which the most vulnerable families would be identified within several public housing sites across the country, and where intensive wrap-around supportive services would be provided to these families to help them remain stably housed (and compliant with PHA tenancy rules), improve health and wellness, increase self-sufficiency, and increase family stability. CSH encourages HUD and Congress, along with visionary philanthropic grant makers, to provide the resources necessary to pursue this exciting initiative.

To hear more about the Urban Institute’s research and the Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration, join a live audio webcast entitled, “The Next Challenge for Public Housing: Serving Its Most Vulnerable Families,” on March 11th from 9 – 10:30am ET at Thursday’s Child, a policy forum jointly sponsored by the Urban Institute and the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

Richard Cho is director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing’s Innovations and Research Unit. Richard has been with CSH over eight years and has been “innovating” the entire time, from figuring out how supportive housing can benefit those re-entering communities from the criminal justice system to designing programs to serve a multitude of populations. 


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