Rapid Rehousing: a Homelessness Program that Works

by James A. Bacon

Not only can Virginians count on getting electric current when they flip on the light switch, the Old Dominion can boast of something else that Californians cannot: The number of homeless people in the state is declining. A lot. And we’re spending a tiny fraction of the money that Californians do to deal with the problem.

The number of homeless people in Virginia has tumbled 36% over the past decade, from 9,080 people in 2010 to 5,780 this year, according to figures provided by Pam Kestner, deputy director of housing at the state Department of Housing and Community Development in a presentation to the Virginia Housing Commission. (Virginia Mercury reported on the presentation here.)

The homelessness rate in Virginia runs about seven homeless people per 10,000 residents compared to 33 in California and 46 in New York. Progress has been especially evident in the Richmond area, where homelessness dropped from 1,158 people in 2007 to 497 this year. While the state of California spends roughly $1 billion a year on programs for the homeless (and local governments spend hundreds of millions more), Virginia and federal government together have budgeted $17.4 million for homeless services this year in the Old Dominion.

This is a remarkable untold story. Who knew that Virginia had been so successful in copying with homelessness?

Kerstner attributes the improving numbers to the state’s early embrace of “rapid-rehousing,” which helps people facing or experiencing homelessness pay for security deposits and rent. “We know that the solution to homelessness is housing — it’s kind of a no brainer,” she said.

Dipping into the Internet this morning for background information, I get the impression that state dollars in Virginia — or at least the Richmond area — are supplemented by significant philanthropic resources. Several nonprofits promote their rapid-rehousing services, including CARITAS, Commonwealth Catholic Charities, St. Joseph’s Villa, HomeAgain Richmond, and Housing Families First, among others.

Established in 2012, Housing Families First claims, its Building Neighbors rapid re-housing process “consistently enables over 90% of participants to move into permanent housing. Most importantly, 85% of these families do not return to homelessness with a year after leaving the program.” Here’s how the program works:

A family that is referred to Building Neighbors meets with a Family Housing Case Manager to complete a comprehensive assessment of their strengths, assets, needs, and barriers. Together they develop a housing action plan that builds on a family’s unique strengths and addresses their barriers. The family then works with a Community Housing Navigator to identify and apply for safe, affordable rental housing that meets their needs.

Once approved for a lease, Housing Families First may provide financial assistance with deposits, utilities, and first month’s rent, if needed, so that the family can lease their new home. The family then works with their Case Manager — usually for about three to six months — to increase their income, address individuals challenges, and connect to community resources so that they can maintain their housing.

There are many types of homeless — the mentally ill, substance abusers, and families evicted from their dwellings — and Housing Families First appears to cater mainly to the third.  Rapid re-housing may not address every homeless need, but the strategy appears to have made a big difference for thousands of poor Virginians.