A talk with Dennis Culhane A National Expert on Housing Issues

Chalkey Horenstein: Let’s start with some background information. What kind of work have you done to research homelessness and the ways to prevent it?

Dennis Culhane: Among other things, I worked as a consultant to the state of Massachusetts for four years — the last year of the Romney administration and first three years of the Patrick administration — the purpose of which was to do research in support of reform of the [Emergency Assistance] (EA) program. I published a couple studies that looked at that, and I helped them to strategize and think about how to reorganize the EA program.

CH: What has your work taught you about programs like HomeBASE?

DC: The state spends a lot of money on shelter, and there’s not really any evidence that these resources produce much value. So a lot of people have been trying to figure out “Why don’t we have the state reposition the money to help people solve their housing problem, rather than stay in a shelter?” So more proactively, we wanted to aim the resources to housing. That was the origin of the thinking behind EA reforms, like HomeBASE.

But then there was the political aspect. What happened was the state would like to use more of the resources to do housing, but the advocates for the homeless (some, not all) resisted restricting eligibility for shelter. And one of the ways the state could have paid for more housing was to take money out of shelters and put it into housing — but you can’t do that if you’re not going to curtail the use of the shelter. And when it came to designing what housing options were going to be given to homeless families, the housing advocates pushed for a three year subsidy program – effectively a time-limited section 8 voucher — and that went beyond the reach of an emergency response program. However, this was very appealing to many families because you could just declare yourself homeless and get three years of rental assistance.

There was no cost containment in the proposal. It was very clear that on the one hand shelter eligibility was not narrowed, and they were granting a fairly generous housing benefit, and that was not going to be sustainable. The money to pay for housing subsidies was supposed to come from reducing the shelter system, but you can’t save money in the shelters unless you successfully narrow who gets shelter. For a lot of homeless families, they don’t actually need emergency shelter – it’s just a way-station until they get a new home. HomeBASE was supposed to be an emergency assistance program. But the advocates successfully got the legislature to approve a program that went beyond an emergency assistance program. It was essentially a housing voucher program.

CH: So is that why you think it seems to be having trouble lately?

DC: Yes.

CH: In your opinion, what could have made HomeBASE last longer/fair better?

I think they have to go back to the drawing board. My original recommendation was that the emergency assistance program should be more broadly defined, and have more components: There should be different eligibility standards for different program components. If someone has an eviction notice and arrearages to be paid, there should be a program for that. If people are leaving for domestic violence or a building closing or fire, they should have access to emergency shelter. If someone is in a doubled up situation or crowded, the program should help them to stabilize or move into bigger units.

But the intention of the EA program is not to become a new housing subsidy program. It can’t be used just to sit in a waiting in line for a housing voucher. It should have a more emergency assistance-oriented approach.

The state should allocate housing subsidy programs with their own eligibility criteria, and while someone’s homelessness history could be part of that eligibility determination, the State has to take into account the whole array of people who need housing.

This is not to say that a homeless history is irrelevant, but being homeless should not be on its own a criterion for making you eligible for a housing subsidy. It leads to shelters acting as a waiting line for vouchers, and it’s very expensive. The average cost for a family in shelter is $27,000 per family — that’s the equivalent of three years in a voucher.

CH: What other programs have you seen work in the past? Could you give an example of a more successful program for the powers at be to refer to when revising HomeBASE?

The perfect example is the HPRP program (the federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program). That program on a national basis worked very well; more than 90 percent of those that received assistance were able to get out of (or avoid) homelessness, and they only used the program for an average of four months of assistance, because it was an emergency assistance program. The maximum allowed was 18 months, but communities were encouraged to use as little as possible to avert a homelessness episode or to stabilize a family in housing.

The key is that a lot of these situations can be sustained by helping people get through an immediate crisis — that usually means getting a car fixed, paying utilities, paying a few months’ rent, but the idea is that the program is emergency assistance – helping people to survive and transition through a crisis. That’s what the EA program should be modeled after — it’s working on a national basis.

CH: So, in your opinion, the difference between this and HomeBASE is that HomeBASE is being used as a transitory period, not an emergency assistance?

DC: Yes. And it was used to provide three years of rent, whereas HPRP is used for 3 to 6 months, on average. But it’s really pushing the boundaries of “emergency” to say someone needs three years of rental assistance. Like many states, Massachusetts has a long waiting list for housing subsidies, so it’s not going to be feasible financially to serve people for long periods of time at such great expense, whereas many more people could be helped with less amounts of assistance.

The purpose of the HPRP program is to help people avoid homelessness or get out of homeless, not to get them into a long-term affordable housing unit.

If the emergency assistance program was more carefully administered, there would be resources leftover that are currently tied up in shelter that could go to the state’s housing subsidy program. But that program has to be administered under its own rules. So the state is partly being held back from creating affordable housing because they are running this very expensive shelter system.

Essentially, what happened was HomeBASE blurred the line between an emergency assistance and subsidized housing program, and people in doubled up housing (two generations, or two families living together) saw that and knew that they could jump the queue for subsidies if they declared themselves homeless. This is not to say that people in doubled up housing are not in difficult situations. Some may be in danger or in an unsafe housing and they should have access to emergency shelter. But for many, it’s just not the most desirable housing arrangement. We fail to realize just how many people are in doubled up housing just because of the state of the economy now. Doubling up is a sensible thing to do for a lot of people because of the economy.
For the poor, it’s a regular way of life. And we can’t assume that being doubled up constitutes homelessness. The state couldn’t afford to give a subsidy to every doubled up family, even if they are poor.

So what the emergency program can do is focus on its emergency response. It should be fast and time limited. The state’s housing subsidy programs should operate under different rules — sure, they should take homelessness history into account, but simply making homelessness a sole criterion for a housing subsidy will entice people to declare themselves homeless.

CH: As a follow up to what you just said about shelters, what do you think shelters can do to help the current situation?

I think the emergency shelter is there to make sure people aren’t on the streets. But it’s not a good place for people to be in general. Shelters are associated with problems for the families and the children, and it’s not a healthy place to be. Our policy should be to make sure homeless people are here for as short a time as possible.

HPRP embodied the spirit of that — that we should be using our resources to get them out of homelessness, not get them into shelters. We should be paying people to navigate through crisis, help them with financial planning, connect them with resources, and connect them with services to help them become self-sustaining. But the shelter system has never been designed to be people’s long term solution to a housing problem and neither should they be. By nature, they are emergency oriented.

CH: Most subsidies are 2-years minimum wait, and some can be up to 15. If shelters are short term, what do you recommend for the homeless and impoverished sitting on a long waitlist for subsidized housing?

The long term solution is to get more housing subsidies. The crisis situation for those imminently homeless is to help them get out of crisis as soon as possible, and unfortunately for most people that means figuring out how to make a doubled up situation work, because they can’t afford to have a place on their own. The emergency programs should try to help people to get into more stable housing, including larger units or adding other adult earners to the household to lower costs.

Social service programs and childcare programs should be used to help families with their crises, but it’s not feasible for the emergency shelter program to be the long-term solution to people’s housing problems.
More than half the families that leave shelters –– 60 percent — leave without a subsidy, and most return to a doubled up situation. In part, that’s what these programs should do: help people facilitate a living situation where there are enough people that they can pool resources. That’s the way the vast majority of people are coping with the economy and the housing crisis, not just the poor.

CH: So would you recommend doubling up for families, for example, that are four children and single mothers? Not shelter use?

For each family who is in shelter, there are at least 10 families not in shelter who look just like them. How is it fair to give the family in shelter a permanent subsidy over those who are just like them but who are not in shelter? You have to think about what’s the purpose of emergency assistance: to get people out of emergency, to help people to get into their own unit. But they have to have a plan for sustainability, whether it’s getting the deadbeat dad to contribute more, or getting others to move into a co-housing situation, but emergency assistance is intended to provide emergency assistance, not as a long term solution.

Advocates who want a permanent solution should advocate for more permanent solution resources. Shelters who have clients who stay for nine or more months are ineffectively using their resources because they’re serving very few people at great cost — and those resources could be used to make more vouchers. And those vouchers should be administered on a fair and equitable basis. And unfortunately, for many people, that’s a waitlist. The state can establish priorities for the waitlist, to serve complex or needy families, including considering homelessness history, but being in a shelter should not be a sole criteria for a housing subsidy.

The shelter is not a place to allocate those resources — the families in shelter are no different than most other poor families in the same circumstances not getting access to those resources. It’s not fair to let them jump the queue just because they were brave enough to declare homelessness and enter shelter.

The emergency system should be exactly what that says — emergency. The affordability problem is big, the shelter system is small, and it’s not an equitable way to handle the affordable housing allocation process. It leads to the problem that exists: which is that people use shelters as a waiting line, and that’s very expensive.
If the families in shelter were very different and very needy, then I could understand a priority for them. But most families are leaving shelter to go back to doubled up situations. The families who stay the longest in shelter actually look relatively less needy than people who leave quickly. It distorts the objective because shelters often evict the more troubled families, and the people who stick around are typically less in need.

Our research has shown that most of the shelter resources are being used on families with relatively fewer needs, and they’re the ones who get the housing vouchers because they have waited in shelter the longest. Families with relatively more needs and more social issues are leaving shelter more quickly. The families who stay the longest are the most likely to have a job, least likely to have substance abuse problems, least likely to have mental health problems, and least likely to have child welfare involvement. So, paradoxically, most resources end up being spent on the families which have the fewest problems, and in the end they’re the ones getting the subsidies. What is the sense in that? It’s not rational.

But it’s not just in Massachusetts. We did a study on this in four jurisdictions, and it all turned up the same results. Massachusetts, like New York City, is a relatively unique environment in that it provides shelter as a right to everyone who requests it. Not surprisingly, along with New York City, they have the biggest problem with expenditures.

CH: What are your thoughts for HomeBASE in 2012, or hopes in general for the new year when it comes to homeless policy and housing?

DC: I hope that the state develops a policy that helps families to avoid homelessness whenever possible, and that uses its resources to help people resolve their housing emergencies as quickly as possible. To the extent that shelter is used, it should be done on an emergency basis. The state should conserve its housing resources for affordable housing subsidies, and it should have a rational basis for allocating them. Giving out housing subsidies through the emergency shelter system is a failed policy.

CH: Any final words of advice to the readers, or to aspiring homeless advocates?

We need to distinguish a new affordable housing strategy, including preference criteria that prioritize families with multiple, complex needs — some of which have a homelessness history, some do not. But the bottom line is that there should be an affordable housing solution that expands the number of subsidies, and creates a priority for families with complex needs. Some may be homeless, but some may have never been homeless. Homelessness history should be taken into consideration, but it should not be the sole criteria for getting housing.

There should be a whole system of advocacy for people with disabled children, including disabled adults, families reuniting from foster care, and women coming out substance abuse treatment. Many of their problems aren’t going away anytime soon. These are the kinds of people who need permanent subsidies. Priority for subsidies should go to those people. But that should be separate from the homeless system — the homeless system and EA should be designed to help people resolve an acute emergency — avoiding eviction, avoiding displacement, making good on debt, helping them to transition to a better, more-fit housing unit, getting people into employment. That’s what an EA program should be about. It is not the long term housing affordability solution.

Shelter systems serve very few people at a very great cost. You don’t see them, but other families are in the same situation and could just have easily been the ones in shelter, but we’re not helping them as much, because all the resources are tied up in shelter. That’s not right.

And if you ask homeless families, they don’t want to be in a homeless shelter. They want someone to help them with their problems. So this is also what the consumers want.

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