A War-on-Poverty Success Story

by James A. Bacon

Homelessness in the Richmond metro area has dropped by more than half since 2007, from about 1,158 homeless people to less than 500 this year. It is one of the great anti-poverty success stories — one of the few anti-poverty success stories — of our time. This dramatic improvement results from a dramatic shift in homeless policy from a model that sheltered families for as long as two years to a “rapid rehousing” model that gets them out of shelters and into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

As a national movement, rapid rehousing began in earnest with a Housing and Urban Development demonstration project in 2008. It has contributed to significant gains in communities across the country, but few have embraced the new paradigm with the enthusiasm of the Richmond region. To see the philosophy in action, I visited the Hilliard House shelter, in eastern Henrico County, operated by Housing Families First.

The Hilliard House is a solid brick housing complex with private rooms, a communal dining room, shared living space, and a cloistered courtyard. It is a clean, safe place where homeless families can regroup. Thanks to generous community support, when families leave, they are given linens, kitchen implements and cleaning supplies to help them set up house.

Under the old model, Hilliard House served about 15 to 20 families yearly, spending $20,000 to $30,000 to shelter them for as long as two years. The thinking then was to provide them with a full range of services — mental health treatment, food, child care, job training, education, whatever they needed until they were ready to stand on their own, explains Beth Vann-Turnbull, executive director. Now Hillard House operates as a low-barrier emergency shelter where families stay only 41 days on average.

Eighty percent move directly into permanent housing when they leave. More importantly, 90% of families don’t return to homelessness within the year.

A path to permanent housing for some of the most vulnerable families takes place through rapid re-housing, Housing Families First’s companion housing program. It turns out that most families just need temporary assistance. Typically, they’ve fallen behind in their utility bills and can’t open new accounts, they can’t scrape together the cash for a month’s rental payment, security deposit, and move-in costs, and they often have other credit problems. With help from Housing Families First “housing navigators” and modest cash payments to address their short-term housing barriers, homeless families can find permanent abodes pretty quickly. Once their situation is stabilized, says Vann-Turnbull, “most families can sustain their payments.” The cost to rapidly re-house a family is around $8,000 a year — and Housing Families First re-houses over 100 families each year.

Hilliard House and Housing Families First do not just provide temporary shelter — they gets homeless households into permanent housing. Staff members have mastered new skill sets. They have become experts in negotiating with landlords and creditors on behalf of homeless families. They work with the bread-winners, typically single mothers, to identify personal strengths and assets in order to best represent themselves to landlords. Sometimes, they even re-write leases. Says Vann-Turnbull: “It’s very practical problem solving.”

Ideally, at the end of the process, homeless families have accomplished more than find a place to live. They’ve gained some financial literacy, they’ve learned to budget, and they’ve learned to think ahead. Instead of worrying about renewing a rental lease two weeks before the expiration date, they start thinking about it a half year ahead. In a word, they become more self sufficient. As the Helping Families First mission statement puts it, the organization provides homeless families “with the tools to achieve housing stability.”

Under the leadership of Homeward, the regional planning organization, the Richmond region has a 10-year plan to end homelessness and promote housing stability. That plan emphasizes the collection and analysis of data to inform decision-making and the allocation of scarce resources. In a shift from the first-come, first-serve approach of the past, Homeward, and by extension the broader nonprofit community, focuses on the most vulnerable. And rather than compete for the same pots of money, non-profits in the homeless arena specialize in what they do best.

Instead of trying to be a source of one-stop social-services shopping, for example, Housing Families First focuses on its core competencies of running a shelter and acting as housing advocates. It partners as necessary with other organizations for healthcare, mental health, childcare and other services that it used to provide in-house.

While the rapid rehousing revolution has driven down the homeless numbers in the Richmond region, Vann-Turnbull is at pains to say that the battle is far from won. The count of 500 “homeless” people in the region does not include thousands more who experience “housing instability,” a condition that describes more than 1,200 school children, who live with family or friends, in hotels, or have other precarious, short-term arrangements that could very well result in homelessness.

Richmond, like other regions, is experiencing an increase in housing costs that consumes a growing share of poor families’ incomes. The City of Richmond also has one of the highest rates of tenant evictions of any city in the country, although an eviction-reform movement is working to reform laws stacked in favor of landlords. In the long run, says Vann-Turnbull, the region needs to address the fact that hardly anyone is building new housing that poor people can afford.

The lack of low-income housing supply is fundamental. When landlords have no vacancies, they become much pickier about whom they rent to. Conversely, Vann-Turnbull observes wryly, “When they have vacancies, people are extremely compassionate.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent by government and philanthropies each year, poverty has been an intractable problem in America. But homelessness is one area where tangible improvements are being made. Considerable work remains to be done, but it is heartening to see that progress of any kind is possible. Indeed, the rapid-rehousing model may offer useful lessons for other anti-poverty warriors: Apply data-driven analysis to identify what works and, like Housing Families First, be nimble enough to change.

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3 responses to “A War-on-Poverty Success Story

  1. This is a an optimistic – half glass full post! Thank YOU!

    there are a few things:

    1. – how much does this cost and who is paying for it?

    2. – how do these folks who need this help – get to this point in their
    life – and does it have anything to do with their education level?

    3. – Imagine what happens to a child who is with parents whose lives
    are this chaotic. Where does that child go to school and is it the same school the whole year or the whole time they are in school? Doubtful, right? Compare that to a kid that lives with educated/good income parents living in the same subdivision with the same neighborhood school for the entire time the kid is in elementary school.

  2. Thanks for this post and reporting, Jim. It is good to see agencies and organizations willing to change when needed and to hear of a program that is successful.

  3. When we look at all the downstream costs – taxpayer-funded of what happens to kids – who grow up without adequate education – we sometimes see good things about the program that help them when they grow up to be adults.

    But – if you helped them when they were kids – would the ROI be better?

    Too many of us – resent the “mo money” for K-12 schools and kids in economically-disadvantaged circumstances. We ask why it is OUR responsibility, and we say that Charter schools could “fix” the problem.

    If they could/would I’d be all in favor – even for using taxpayer money.

    If …. they could/would.

    But the proponents don’t seem to want the same level of transparency and accountability as the public schools have – AND, more important than that – they lose sight of the downstream costs of kids who fail to be adequately educated – and we argue about how the public schools “fail” at this …. so we basically argue about what to do and in the mean-time that Conveyors belt keeps dumping more and more kids into the taxpayer-funded entitlement word.

    The extra dollars it costs to educate the kids in elementary is miniscule compared to the Medicaid, housing and TANF costs… yet we cannot seem to agree on it and so we argue against MO money for elementary but we give KUDOS to the agencies that do good things on subsidized housing.

    I join those who give kudos – but I still point out that we’re treating symptoms….. and cannot seem to generate the same level of enthusiasm for Mo Money in elementary/pre-school/etc.

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