By Jeeni Criscenzo
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently came out with a 55-page document titled “Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing: Defining “Chronically Homeless”.
I can only imagine the thousands of dollars spent to clarify that: agencies receiving HUD funds to serve chronically homeless people cannot use those funds for persons or households if any of the periods separating the requisite “4 separate occasions in the past 3 years” where they were homeless (according to the HUD definition of homeless) were less than 7 nights.
If that sounds convoluted to you, imagine being an underpaid, intake staff person at an underfunded homeless service agency, interviewing a homeless client to determine if they can accept him or her into the program without jeopardizing their HUD funding.
Worse yet, imagine being that desperate homeless person. As if people who find themselves with no place to go have the option of deciding when and how long they are going to have a roof over their heads! And really, do any of them bother to keep a calendar? “So let’s see, January 15 to January 19, 2012, I was able to stay with my Aunt Sally for 5 days, until she caught me smoking a joint and put me out on the street. Damn, if I’d know that wouldn’t count as a legit “period separating occasions,” maybe I would have pleaded with her to let me stay two more days.” I’m tempted to set up a table on the street to advise homeless people how long they have to be on the street and how long they have to shack up with a friend in order to qualify for help.
HUD’s complexity of definitions of what is “homeless” and “chronically homeless” is leaving a lot of our most vulnerable people quite literally out in the cold.
If it wasn’t so tragic, it could be a hysterical comedy routine. That 55-page document only defines “chronically homeless”in terms of where HUD is allocating the majority of their funds. Just plain old generic homelessness is another whole can of worms that doesn’t include thousands of homeless women and families. Unfortunately HUD’s complexity of definitions of what is “homeless” and “chronically homeless” is leaving a lot of our most vulnerable people quite literally out in the cold.
Now, the complexity of who can and cannot be served with HUD funding has just gotten much worse. The bureaucrats in D.C. seem to have an “all or nothing approach” to addressing the highly complex problem of homelessness. In selected studies, it has been found that the “Housing First” model has more successful outcomes. So now HUD is pulling funds from all transitional housing programs, and agencies are scrambling to redesign their programs to match HUD’s latest housing wet dream.
Lisa Halverstadt, of VOSD reported that San Diego’s Regional Continuum of Care Council, the countywide group that decides on local programs which will compete for federal funds, turned in an application last month that nixed seven current projects and proposed reduced funding for another.
How people and families end up homeless is complex and varied. And what works in some places won’t necessarily work in all of them.
While Housing First (where all barriers to housing are removed, including requisite sobriety or past criminal records) is a godsend for many people who need to be housed before they can address their other issues, it doesn’t work in every case. And some agencies that tout using the Housing First model by accepting clients despite addictions or other issues, do not subsequently provide the support needed for these individuals to remain housed. To put a family into housing and then kick them out because of behavior issues (as I wrote about in Back to Homeless and Hopeless) is not solving the problem.
How people and families end up homeless is complex and varied. And what works in some places won’t necessarily work in all of them. While the state of Utah can proclaim that they have ended homelessness using the Housing First model, it’s not safe to assume the City of San Diego, with less than 2% vacancy rates and zero affordable housing and more homeless people and families than the entire state of Utah, can produce the same results with drastically different variables.
Efforts to house people have been made more complex by HUD’s grant application/award/reporting process that tries to shoehorn everyone into the latest trendy program.
But don’t try to explain this to HUD Housing First cheerleaders. Everyone who wants HUD funding has to jump on their bandwagon and pay unquestioning tribute to their latest buzz-word solutions, even when they know from boots-on-the-ground experience that this cannot possibly work in every case.
Homelessness is so complex that one approach cannot be appropriate for every situation or population. We need the wiggle room and support to do what needs to be done to reach the ultimate goal—that our clients are housed immediately, and prepared to remain housed in whatever way works for them at this time, and to have the flexibility to adapt to changes in their situation so that they continue to be housed.
[T]he ultimate goal [is] that our clients are housed immediately, and prepared to remain housed in whatever way works for them at this time, and to have the flexibility to adapt to changes in their situation so that they continue to be housed.
In some cases that may be transitional housing, or transition-in-place (a hybrid of transitional to permanent). Or, for those highly resistant to rules and regulations, it could be a form of housing that seems unsuitable to us, but works for the client in their current state of mind. It just has to protect them from the elements, provide for their basic human hygienic needs, allow them to feel safe, and at the very least, does them no harm.
Efforts to house people have been made more complex by HUD’s grant application/award/reporting process that tries to shoehorn everyone into the latest trendy program. We need to re-direct the thousands of hours and resources put into the whole convoluted grant process.
If a fraction of that energy was put into actually creating both innovative and proven housing solutions, the flexibility to try new ideas with sufficient stable funding to give those ideas the chance to actually succeed, and listening to the needs of our clients, we could actually solve homelessness. Instead there is constant competition, confusion and wearing down of the people who really want to make a difference.