Housing Vouchers Best Solution for Family Homelessness

Here in the District of Columbia — and elsewhere — we’ve had a lot of back-and-forth on rapid re-housing as a tool for ending homelessness. No one doubts that it ends homelessness for awhile, since participants get a short-term subsidy to help cover rent.

The issue is rather whether they can get their act together to the point they can pay full rent when their subsidies expire — generally, at the end of a year, though in some communities up to 18 months.

A study for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests families often can’t — at least, not for very long.

The study was one of those controlled experiments. Researchers gave homeless families in twelve communities one of three types of housing assistance that moved them out of shelters. A fourth group got only the “usual care” the community offered, e.g., more time in the shelter, some supportive services.

Which form of assistance families got, if any had nothing to do with their past history or other characteristics that could affect their near-term prospects, e.g., parental employment, health.

The researchers then looked at how they were faring a year and a half later. Forty-seven percent of the rapidly re-housed reported they’d recently been homeless or living doubled up with friends or family members because they couldn’t afford rent on their own.

This is statistically no different from what families who’d gotten no housing aid reported. By contrast, only 22% of families who’d gotten regular indefinite-term housing vouchers had again been without a home of their own.

So in the simplest sense, the study, which is still ongoing, confirms what most advocates have long said. The best solution for family homelessness is affordable housing. Most wouldn’t be homeless if they just had enough help to pay rent.

Families may also benefit from services, but they generally don’t need what the researchers term “specialized homeless-specific psychosocial services” — an underlying assumption of at least some “usual care” and transitional housing programs.

The study, however, tells us more than this. Families secure in their housing because their vouchers didn’t have fixed end dates fared better on a range of well-being measures.

For example:

  • Fewer children in the securely-housed families had been placed in foster care or sent to live with a relative.
  • Fewer parents reported psychological distress or showed measurable signs of substance abuse.
  • Half as many experienced violence by an “intimate partner,” presumably what most of us refer to as domestic violence.
  • Fewer families suffered from food insecurity, i.e., couldn’t always afford enough for everyone to eat enough (or perhaps anything).

Turning — as of course, one must — to cost issues, we learn that housing vouchers were cheaper than either rapid re-housing or transitional housing.

These are direct costs only. Families with housing vouchers cost, on average, a tad more than those in rapid re-housing once the services they received because they sought them out are factored in — roughly $136.50 more per month.

Emergency shelter, plus “usual care” services cost far more. And interestingly, the services accounted for 63% of the total. Not a great ROI on that investment, it seems.

The president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness says it’s misleading to compare voucher costs to those of “crisis interventions.” This seems reasonable on its face because voucher costs were — and will be — ongoing.

And it’s just the sort of thing one would expect from the head of an organization that’s heavily invested in promoting rapid re-housing. But rapid re-housing has been sold as an effective strategy for ending homelessness, not a short-term solution, as she now says.

Followers may recall questions I raised about the rapid re-housing success rate that the District’s prime homeless services contractor reported — and the former head of the Department of Human Services cited.

That rate reflected only the percent of rapidly re-housed families that hadn’t again sought shelter through the District’s intake system, as Marta Berensin and other attorneys at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless have noted.

Most other reported success rates have a similar limit.

Things look quite different when we factor in families who started couch-surfing when their short-term housing subsidies expired — and others who became homeless, but didn’t return to the “system” that had failed to solve their problem before.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the District’s local equivalent envision a time when homelessness will be “rare, brief and non-recurring.” For some families, rapid re-housing may, by this definition, end homelessness.

But for most, subsidies that make housing affordable for the long term seem the answer — at least, among the options the HUD study assessed. Other measures to rebuild and preserve the dwindling stock of affordable housing belong in the mix too.

Because high housing costs, plus low wages and even lower publicly-funded benefits are the main problem, not personal “psychosocial” problems that need fixing.

8 Responses to Housing Vouchers Best Solution for Family Homelessness

  1. zoom314 says:

    Vouchers as I thought are a nice idea, but here’s the catch, Congress sends out a fixed amount, if there is more demand, too bad, I think Congress has decreased the amount too, as I thought they would, they don’t care about the poor(indifference) or actually are bordering on hate for the poor, this has been this way no matter which party has been in power.

    Me I’m in favor of Basic Income funded by the US Government with no work requirements for all Adult US Citizens, back in the 70’s Congress almost passed something like this called the FAP, or Family Assistance Program, what killed it? President Nixon, He added a work requirement, that killed the bill I’ve read, since then there has been ZERO or near Zero help, a Republicans idea of help is people donating to others directly, I’ve got a dead tv, I can’t replace it, not for about 6 months to maybe 1 year, I’m poor and disabled, plenty of ideas, but not much real help, like all of $10.00 on gofundme, will it get higher? I’m not sure, so far I have My doubts, most are probably too poor or not very generous… Yeah it’s on Facebuck… Fat lot of good that does.

  2. zoom314 says:

    That should be Plan, not Program. Here’s a quote from the link below:

    {Quote}Nixon had experienced the sting of poverty as a child, and he never forgot it. But while he sympathized with the poor, he also shared many Americans’ conviction that the welfare system had grown into an inefficient bureaucracy which fostered dependency and low self esteem among welfare recipients and contributed to the breakdown of families by providing assistance only to households which were not headed by a working male.

    With the assistance of Urban Affairs Council secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nixon created the Family Assistance Plan. FAP called for the replacement of bureaucratically administered programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Food Stamps, and Medicaid, with direct cash payments to those in need. Not only single-parent families, but the working poor would qualify for aid. All recipients, save the mothers of preschool age children, would be required to work or take job training.

    Nixon revealed FAP in a nationwide address on August 8, 1969. Heavy criticism followed. Welfare advocates declared the income level Nixon proposed — $1600 per year for a family of four — insufficient. Conservatives disliked the idea of a guaranteed annual income for people who didn’t work. Labor saw the proposal as a threat to the minimum wage. Caseworkers opposed FAP fearing that many of their jobs would be eliminated. And many Americans complained that the addition of the working poor would expand welfare caseloads by millions. A disappointed Nixon pressed for the bill’s passage in various forms, until the election season of 1972. He knew a bad campaign issue when he saw one, and he let FAP expire.{/Quote}


  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    This is a good summary of the Nixon initiative. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Kathryn Baer says:

    Funding for vouchers was cut, as part of the 2013 across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. Congress has since appropriated enough to restore some, but not all of the lost vouchers. However, as I wrote awhile ago, the HUD budget the House has passed for the upcoming fiscal year would fail to support all vouchers now in use. Too soon to predict what the end result will be.

  5. zoom314 says:

    Yeah, you’re welcome. FAP is as close to a Basic Income as the US has ever come, SSI is I think best Nixon could do, though it’s saddled with limits and requirements that are sadly out of date, the GOP just wants SSI to become a Block Grant w/few or no strings attached in how the money is spent by State Governments and with all administrative costs being something for the states to spend money on and not the US Government anymore.

    A ‘Basic Income Grant’ would be a minimum Grant to all Adult Citizens, working or not, if people want more than that(lets say $28,800 a year max as a BIG, this is based on $15 an hour, funded solely by the US Government), then they’d need a job to go along with the BIG to have more income, in this way the BIG would not threaten labor or the Minimum wage one bit, employers would not be able to hold ones income hostage anymore, the employee would have control of the ball, the BIG would be administered by the SSA and would replace the following: SS, SSDI, SSI, FoodStamps(SNAP), UI, TANF, Welfare, Housing Vouchers, etc, etc, etc…

    Plus getting rid of a lot of needless duplication in the Federal Government, real streamlining, not the phony baloney type the GOP/RNC/RSC advocates…


    {Quote}Work incentives and disincentives

    A frequent objection to basic income is that it would create a disincentive to work since it is unconditional.[8][9][10] It might be expected that the magnitude of such a disincentive would depend on how generous the basic income were to be. Some campaigners in Switzerland have suggested a level that would only just be liveable, arguing that people would want to supplement it.[11]

    Tim Worstall, a writer and blogger, has argued that traditional welfare schemes create a disincentive to work because such schemes typically cause people to lose benefits at around the same rate that their income rises (a form of poverty trap where the marginal tax rate is 100%). He has asserted that this particular disincentive is not a property shared by basic income as the rate of increase is positive at all incomes.[12]

    In one study, even when the benefits are not permanent, the hours worked—by the recipients of the benefit—are observed to decline by 5%, a decrease of 2 hours in a typical 40 hour work week:

    While experiments have been conducted in the United States and Canada, those participating knew that their benefits were not permanent and, consequently, they were not likely to change their behaviour as much or in the same manner had the GAI been ongoing. As a result, total hours worked fell by about five percent on average. The work reduction was largest for second earners in two-earner households and weakest for the main earner. Further, the negative work effect was higher the more generous the benefit level.[9]

    However, in studies of the Mincome experiment in rural Dauphin, Manitoba in the 1970s, the only two groups who worked significantly less were new mothers, and teenagers working to support their families. New mothers spent this time with their infant children, and working teenagers put significant additional time into their schooling.[13] Under Mincome, “the reduction of work effort was modest: about one per cent for men, three per cent for wives, and five per cent for unmarried women.”[14]

    Another study that contradicted such decline in work incentive was a pilot project implemented in 2008 and 2009 in the Namibian village of Omitara; the assessment of the project after its conclusion found that economic activity actually increased, particularly through the launch of small businesses, and reinforcement of the local market by increasing households’ buying power.[15] However the residents of Omitara were described as suffering “dehumanising levels of poverty” before the introduction of the pilot,[16] and as such the project’s relevance to potential implementations in developed economies is not known.{/Quote}

  6. zoom314 says:

    Agreed again Kathryn, the future for Housing Voucher spending levels is unknown. The House has its share of Lunatics and the Lunatics are running the House and Senate…

  7. […] can, I think, credit the shift to the findings of a recently-completed study conducted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. […]

  8. […] more for families, which may tell us something — at the very least, doubts about how successful the vouchers are at truly ending homelessness for all but those temporarily down on their […]

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