The Feds' Homelessness-Prevention Program

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Amy Sussman / Corbis

A tent city appears in Sacramento, Calif.

After her husband left her, Jennifer Santana lost her job. When she was evicted from her apartment, Santana, 37, held her family together by living with a friend and then in her van. But as the nights grew cold in early December, she stood huddled with her three children in front of the Orange County cold-weather shelter in Santa Ana, Calif. "There were long lines of men and women, and the people were laying out mats on the floor. It was scary. I could not believe I was standing there with my kids."

In America's communities, the local homeless shelter is just one step away from life on the street. Fortunately for Santana's and other families, county and United Way funds pay for adults with children 18 and younger to be immediately housed in motels. Six weeks after moving into a motel, a small, unheralded federal program — the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) — began helping Santana move into an apartment. "I am so excited. Things are going to be normal again," says Santana, a short-haired blond who has found work as a licensed vocational nurse.

Equipped with $1.5 billion of the nearly $800 billion stimulus package, the HPRP started giving out funds in October that some experts believe will help an estimated 600,000 Americans avoid homelessness. The program helps people pay security deposits, utility bills, moving bills and rent checks to either avoid eviction or move from transitional housing into their own apartments. The assistance lasts from three to 18 months. People on the verge of homelessness did not qualify for federal assistance previously, says Housing and Urban Development spokesman Brian Sullivan. "Now we are in the prevention game in a way we have never been before." Says Nan Roman, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness: "The focus is on people who can get right back in the workforce."

Soup kitchens and shelters are the traditional ways society has looked after the homeless. But homeless advocates argue that making sure people can continue to afford housing is the central issue. "Services not connected to housing do little good," says Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, the homeless organization that runs the Santa Ana shelter and an array of other programs in Orange County. "Pancake breakfasts provided by the middle and upper class make people feel better, but where are the pancakes the next day?" he adds. "Haiti is a sad reminder that having a place to live is the base for everything else — for employment, for keeping kids in school, for your health and for your well-being," says Roman. "In the past, our homeless system did not do much about housing except offer temporary shelter."

An estimated 672,000 people are homeless on any given night, and over the course of a year, between 2 million and 3 million people experience homelessness for a few weeks or a few months. The chronic homeless, many of whom have psychological or substance-abuse problems, comprise only 20% of the homeless population. Meanwhile, unemployment and foreclosure have sent tens of thousands of families into financial free fall. At the beginning of 2009, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities projected that the severe recession and the growth of long-term unemployment would push an additional 1.5 million people into the streets. Asks Roman: "Why should we think that people can get their lives together, get a job, keep their kids in school, when they live in a van or a shelter? It is not reasonable. People need the stability of a home. You need housing to be employed. It's the platform for everything else." With long-term unemployment at record highs, Congress is considering providing an additional $1 billion in funding for HPRP as part of a forthcoming jobs bill.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors' Hunger and Homelessness Survey, released in December, shows that family homelessness increased in three-quarters of the 27 major cities surveyed during 2009. Big cities have the largest numbers of homeless. According to the alliance, at the end of 2009, Los Angeles topped the nation with 68,608 homeless; New York City had 50,372; Detroit had 18,062; Las Vegas and Clark County, Nevada, had 11,417; Houston had 10,363; and the Denver and Phoenix metropolitan areas approximately 8,500 each. The concentration of the homeless per 10,000 in population is a different story. With the near collapse of the auto industry in 2009, Detroit led the nation, with 216 homeless per 10,000 people. Next in the rankings: Mendocino County, California (161.3), Monroe County, Florida (146.9), and Portland, Maine (116).

The deep recession has caused an uptick in homelessness in rural communities as well. Tent communities began to spring up among the lovely farms and rolling hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, last fall, says Community Homeless Advisor Kay Mosher McDivitt. In December, McDivitt told congressional staff on the Housing committees that Lancaster County has focused on rapid rehousing for several years, with good results. "With the shift in focus," says McDivitt, "we were able to move families out of shelter and back into permanent housing more quickly, often within three months or less, and 80% of these families are able to maintain that housing." Before the shift, fewer than 40% of shelter families moved into permanent housing, and some became part of the chronic homeless.

As one example, McDivitt spoke about Mary, a mother with two small sons who had lost her job and was four months behind on rent. With the help of HPRP and intervention by a case manager, the landlord forgave three months' rent. With only one month in arrears and one month of future rent, Mary was able to find a full-time job and arrange for day care, and by the second month, she was again able to pay her rent.