When a home isn’t enough
Federal homeless policy is based on a flawed, one-size-fits-all approach, but one agency is ready to try a more intensive strategy
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When President Donald Trump took office and nominated renowned brain surgeon Dr. Ben Carson to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), reformers believed it would bring a sea change in housing policy. “We were fist-pumping eight ways to Sunday,” said Chris Megison, CEO of Solutions for Change.
The nonprofit transitional housing program in San Diego, Calif., seeks to change the behaviors of homeless families, helping them to become independent. The program is time-intensive, but with good results: Since 1999, almost 950 formerly homeless families, including 2,300 children, have graduated from the three-year program with housing stability, employment, and reduced dependence on federal aid.
Carson’s trademark message of personal responsibility resonated well with Solutions’ mission. Before he went to HUD, Carson had criticized government programs that “really just kind of pat people on the head” and don’t help them improve themselves. “Yes they get a check … and yes they have a housing subsidy and healthcare subsidy, but there’s nothing to incentivize them to move beyond that, and now we have that on a generational basis.”
Prior to speaking at a 2014 gala event for Solutions for Change, he had high praise for the organization’s approach to homelessness: “Solutions for Change looks for ways to allow people to actually improve themselves to take on some responsibility ... and to move out of that cycle.”
At the time, the federal government had been shifting taxpayer money away from shelters and transitional housing programs and toward a “Housing First” approach that grants housing to homeless persons without requiring changes in behavior—the type of “pat on the head” that Carson opposed.
But even after Carson’s appointment, the requirement to adopt Housing First principles remained for groups working with HUD. Megison says he flew to Washington, D.C., in June 2017 and tag-teamed with his congressman to deliver an appeal to Carson’s office, asking that it reconsider its Housing First policies. Despite the signed support of 23 lawmakers, he received a politely worded dismissal.
Solutions faced a choice: Drop its sobriety and work requirements or give up $600,000 in federal support.
Solutions handed back the money. It meant closing down an emergency family shelter and letting some employees go. But Solutions’ supporters and its board of trustees believed converting to a Housing First approach would have been more destructive in the long run.
To the frustration of reformers, HUD remains committed to Housing First ideas. But recently, another federal agency began showing interest in Solutions’ method of addressing homelessness.
AROUND 554,000 PEOPLE live on the streets in the United States, according to HUD’s 2017 annual assessment. That’s an undercount, though: It doesn’t include some homeless, such as those sheltering in their cars.
Homelessness is nothing new, but the scale of mass homelessness today has both the private and public sector scrambling to find solutions. Front-running strategies include the government’s Housing First approach, an increasingly trendy “community first” strategy, and “transformation first” programs like Solutions.
Housing First advocates believe housing alone solves homelessness. They scrap anything that might deter individuals from entering a program—like drug tests or work requirements. The idea is simply to get people off the streets and into a subsidized apartment of their own, and from there they can deal with any issues of addiction, unemployment, mental illness, or family brokenness. Originally, Housing First was meant for chronically homeless individuals, but eventually it became a one-size-fits-all approach.
It was in the mid-2000s that the government began throwing its weight behind this method, starting under the George W. Bush administration. Housing First ramped up under the Obama administration when Congress’ stimulus package included a cool $1.5 billion for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. Rapid rehousing, an iteration of Housing First, puts families into a subsidized apartment and gives them six months or a little longer to find a way to afford the apartment on their own.
A 2016 HUD report evaluating the new rapid rehousing approach deemed it “highly successful,” and HUD began to defund other approaches. Organizations battling homelessness could hitch onto HUD’s Housing First train or lose their funding.
Many complied. Megison said the federal government and nonprofits may have the right intent, “but what if the design is the wrong design?”
The design is indeed proving flawed. A 2017 D.C. study by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless found that 45 percent of families who participated in rapid rehousing were evicted or sued for eviction in 2016. Only 10 percent of families increased their income over a year, and only 2 out of 5 families were able to maintain their housing without federal aid. A similar look at New York in 2013 found the number of families returning to the streets and to shelters actually rose from 20 percent to over 50 percent after the push for rapid rehousing from 2005-2011.
Solutions for Change represents a transformation first approach. (WORLD will review a third approach, community first, in a future issue.) Advocates for this approach believe subsidies alone merely put a Band-Aid on deep, internal issues such as poverty, addiction, domestic violence, or broken families. “We don’t want to be symptom chasers,” Megison said. “Just putting a person behind a door doesn’t do anything to address what got them homeless.”
Transformation first rounds out housing with training, work requirements, and counseling aimed at addressing counterproductive behaviors. So families at Solutions must stay sober and work while going through the 1,000-day program that includes classes on topics like parenting, servant leadership, job training, and managing finances.
Sometimes transformation first organizations are explicitly “Jesus first,” emphasizing the gospel as the key to solving homelessness. Others focus on breaking old habits and establishing new routines. Solutions includes in its recovery steps a “spiritual call to action.” Some come to faith in Christ, but not all residents will become Christians on the road to housing stability.
It may not work for everyone, and Megison’s model only attempts to address homeless families. Solutions says on average, its residents report a tripling of annual incomes, from $7,400 to $21,400, and a decrease by half in dependence on federal aid like food stamps. But the percentage Megison is perhaps the most proud of is graduated parents who were able to reunite with their children—100 percent.
EIGHTEEN MONTHS AFTER LOSING its HUD funding, Solutions had raised enough private donations—largely from churches—to reopen the shuttered family shelter and bulk up its staff. The results of the group’s program also caught the eye of another Trump administration official.
Clarence Carter, director of the Office of Family Assistance at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), reached out to Megison in June 2017 after learning they had lost HUD funding. He oversees the cash-assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and others that deal with family poverty. He has been scoping out alternatives to Housing First for family homelessness, and believed Solutions offered one. Most impressive to Carter was that graduated residents increased their income and savings and reduced their dependence on public support, something he believed the current social safety net failed to do.
“The American social safety net should catch people when they fall—but act as a trampoline to allow them to bounce and function in society on their own,” he said.
He met with local politicians and graduates of Solutions to verify the group’s results, then decided to partner with Megison for a demonstration project on family homelessness, based on the Solutions model. With the support of HHS, Solutions hopes to replicate its model in around 10 other communities. The project is slated to roll out this spring. It will take time—a year and a half to three years, based on the time-intensive program Solutions has pioneered.
Carter said the intent is not to model every family homelessness program in the country after Solutions, adding that he thinks current one-size-fits-all prescriptions have done communities a disservice. “We don’t want the federal government to say—do it that way. We do want the federal government to say—achieve these results.”
Megison says he is once again optimistic: “What I thought would be possible with Ben Carson through HUD is now more than possible through Clarence Carter and HHS.”