Homeless Family Crisis Surges throughout Nation

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February 3, 2014; Washington Post

Our coverage earlier this week of homeless families crowding hotels and motels in Massachusetts shouldn’t be read as though the Bay State has a unique challenge. For some reason, homelessness is increasing in many parts of the country.

In Washington, D.C., according to Brigid Schulte of the Washington Post, this winter has seen an “unexpected and unprecedented rise in family homelessness in the District…bringing homelessness to levels not seen since the crises of the 1980s.” David Berns, the director of the Department of Human Services in the District, anticipates 1,000 new homeless families this winter and reports that the D.C. General Hospital family shelter is full, as are “all the inexpensive hotel rooms in the city.” In fact, D.C. has been placing homeless families in two Maryland hotels, but Maryland officials have protested, resulting in plans to move the families back to D.C. With the need to find space in D.C. for the 110 families that were sent to Montgomery County and Prince Georges County, the District’s latest plan is to use two city-owned recreation centers where the families will sleep on cots in open spaces.

For the 475 families living in hotels and motels because the 285 family rooms at D.C. General are full, the situation is very difficult. For them, getting their kids to schools in the District from hotels in Silver Spring or Cheverly is challenging and long. For D.C. officials, providing services to homeless families scattered around the region is similarly challenging.

“It sounds bad, and it’s worse than it sounds,” Berns told the Post. That’s because shelters for homeless singles typically open all year will potentially close in the spring due to a shortfall of funding. “Right now, I don’t have any fresh ideas” (to deal with the crisis), Berns added.

Part of the problem is that the “housing first” solutions that D.C. and other areas have promoted may not be working so well. For example, the District has a “Rapid Rehousing” program that provides short-term rental assistance for homeless families in market-rate housing, with the idea that within four months to a year, the families themselves will be absorbing the full housing costs. The Post reports that landlords have been resistant to accept these homeless families, and the families themselves are uncertain whether they will succeed in these short-term rentals.

Something, however, is happening in the economy that is evident with increasing numbers of homeless families. In Florida, for example, Osceola County near Disney World reports that the number of homeless parents with school age children grew by 54 percent in the past year to more than 5,000. With plenty of tourist-strip motels, homeless families are ending up in the motels and establishing residency, to the consternation of motel owners who might evict some for nonpayment otherwise. In Salinas, California, motels have been providing housing for homeless families, but often in substandard conditions. The thousands of families that appear to be falling out of the bottom of the economy sometimes remain unemployed for a long while, and in other cases end up homeless.

At some point, this nation has to come to grips with the reality of homelessness in the U.S. It doesn’t appear to be decreasing in the slightest, notwithstanding some official reports and the bravado of government spokespersons announcing that the economy is on the way back. The economy may not be back, but homelessness is. If the nation’s politicians weren’t so studiously interested in the middle class, they might look at what is happening among the poor and very poor to see who is being helped and who gets left behind in this economy.—Rick Cohen

  • Judy

    I feel certain that the homeless situation in the cities mentioned in Mr. Cohen’s article are just the tip of the iceberg. A comprehensive study and research project should be done, today, on exactly how many people and families and children are homeless so that the federal government can provide shelter, food, warm clothing, and transportation to schools, job interviews and healthcare appointments, on a national basis. In place of giving trillions of tax payers dollars away to banks, Wall Street, and cutting big coprorations taxes that could go to pay for a situation that they have created. It’s a moral, as well as a practical dilemma.

    And when Cohen wrote: “If the nation’s politicians weren’t so studiously interested in the middle class, they might look at what is happening among the poor and very poor to see who is being helped and who gets left behind in this economy,” he is exactly right!

  • Angie

    There has been much backlash to the rapid re-housing programs that state and federal agencies are now promoting. If you ask 10 different people working in housing, it is very possible that you will get 10 different interpretations as to how rapid re-housing works. Many of the “failed or failing” programs go upon the premise as mentioned above, where short term subsidies are provided and then the family is expected to be able to pay full rent at the end. As someone who has worked int this field for over 20 years, it seems obvious why this is not working. An expectation that somehow a family is going to “pull themselves up from their bootstraps” and become employed at a job sufficient to pay expenses in this economy lacks common sense. But I do believe whole heartedly that people deserve housing and should not stay in shelters for extended periods of time. The shelter should just be a pit stop. I run a family shelter in MIchigan and have adopted the rapid re-housing model when funds are available. One key difference I feel that we have, is that we only allow families to move into a unit that they can afford on their own, on the income that they have. We supply move in costs and supportive services for at least six months, although on average families stay involved with the supportive services for 8 months. We have decreased our length of stay from 40 days to 17.5 days and 91% of our families stay housed.
    Rapid re-housing can work, but we mustn’t throw out our common sense and somehow believe that a participants income is going to suddenly increase.

  • Brandi Tuck

    Rapid Rehousing has 3 components:
    1. Helping families find an apartment to rent
    2. Paying rent assistance for 4-6 months to help families stabilize
    3. Providing case management to help the families learn new skills, connect to resources, manage their money, and be able to retain their housing long-term.

    My problem with all of these Rapid Rehousing criticisms is that communities are only doing the first 2 components of Rapid Rehousing, and they’re forgetting about the third piece: the supportive services to help families be successful.

    As long as we continue to fund and support only the first 2 arms of the Rapid Rehousing approach, we will not help families sustain their housing long-term. I challenge our nation to provide the services to families they need to keep their housing.

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Brandi: I think you’re right, but there’s a corollary to your third point. The ability to provide the families with decent case management support is tied to the condition, coordination, and cohesiveness of the human services delivery systems available for case managers to draw on. All too often in these Rapid Rehousing or Housing First programs, there isn’t sufficient attention paid to what has to be done to “fix” the human services part of the systems of support for these families. Thanks for your comment.