August 19, 2013: There is yet another article on the federal government’s new focus on Rapid Rehousing, and it’s an article that requires a careful reading between the lines: Rapid Rehousing: A New Way to Head Off Homelessness. The article personalizes the experience of a formerly homeless mother in Washington, D.C. who has been assisted in relocating her family from shelter to a rental apartment, with a time-limited rent subsidy as part of the program. In order to break the “cycle of dependency,” the rent subsidy ends after a to-be-determined period of time (often just months, dependent upon a variety of factors), and the family then takes on full rent themselves. The expectation is that participants in Rapid Rehousing programs can find work if they would just try harder – and that a long-term rent subsidy breeds dependency and inaction. Considering the rental market in most big cities today and continuing high unemployment rates (which often result in periods of homelessness for families that had previously been fairly stable), this scenario, while seemingly quite reasonable for perhaps the majority of families, is in reality for many others quite Kafka-esque.
But this is the sentence that stands out for me the most, a quote from David A. Berns, the director of the District’s Department of Human Services: “The program is about ending homelessness, not solving the problems of poverty.” That statement sounds good on the surface – and in fact I have made similar statements in presentations around the country for years – but it no longer stands up under scrutiny, not in today’s environment. I have also said for many years, however, that “homelessness is but the most visible sign of increasing poverty in America.”
Let me just state this fact: In order to end homelessness, we must focus at the same time on ending poverty! These are tightly linked issues – and cannot be separated. In other words, if you expect someone to have enough money to pay their own rent, then you better ensure that they have access to employment at a living wage, transportation, childcare, and opportunity to move forward with a quality of life – and all of this from a stable housing base!
As the original visionary behind the Housing First approach to ending family homelessness (the model that led eventually to the Rapid Rehousing program described above), I stand firmly behind that statement because I believe that you cannot do the first without a concerted focus on the second. My entire 30-year career has been based on two firm premises: (1) Housing is a basic human right (not just for those who have the ability to pay for it) and (2) stable housing provides the base for successful outcomes in all other areas of human effort. In other words, stable housing provides the base for improved outcomes of services delivery within all other systems – those same systems that help pull people up from poverty! Studies have shown that housing instability can negatively impact successful outcomes in schools, of health care treatment (including mental health treatment and addiction recovery programs), of child welfare services, of child and family services programs, of job training programs and workforce development, and of a wide array of diverse specialized services operating in communities to help improve the social and economic well-being of residents of a community.
And so for me the game is on….Will you join me? Tanya Tull, ScD – Partnering for Change