One Size Does Not Fit All: Rapid Rehousing and Homeless Families

New York City is emerging as an example of how a narrow focus on housing can have serious unintended consequences for so many homeless families.
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Over the last two decades, rapid rehousing strategies have grown to become the dominant trend among the homeless policy and services community. Yet New York City is emerging as an example of how a narrow focus on housing can have serious unintended consequences for so many homeless families. A June 2010 Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH) brief linking aggressive rehousing to recidivism in New York City, Boomerang Homeless Families, raises questions as to the efficacy of rapid rehousing in ensuring the long-term self-sufficiency of homeless families.

Rapid rehousing is an iteration of the Housing First strategy, an approach which identifies stable housing as the most pressing need of the homeless and posits that any other needs can be dealt with by accessing mainstream resources afterwards. In contrast, the Continuum of Care approach utilizes an array of housing options and support services designed to move homeless families from emergency shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing and to provide services at each stage. Services offered along the way are intended to help clients achieve housing stability by preparing them for self-sufficiency.

Housing First has been very successful in getting primarily chronically homeless single adults off of the streets, out of emergency shelters, and quickly into permanent housing with access to mainstream services. More recently, this strategy, which was successful for a very specific population, has been applied to homeless families with children. In fact, rapid rehousing was codified into federal law in 2009 with the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), which aims to prevent and mitigate homelessness through rapid rehousing assistance, and the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH), which expressly emphasizes rapid rehousing for homeless families. These funding streams have fundamentally changed the way localities approach family homelessness, yet it remains unclear if the strategy works well for families.

Rapid rehousing applies the same Housing First principle to all families, regardless of needs, and despite the fact that the causes of family homelessness are complex and families often face multiple barriers to self-sufficiency. The strategy's short-term focus on housing ignores the multi-faceted realities of these families' lives--relegating adult education, job training, income supports, domestic violence issues, or health problems to secondary importance. Data are beginning to show that rapid rehousing may have serious longer-term consequences for families and family shelter systems.

Boomerang Homeless Families finds that in New York City, the shift to aggressive rehousing in 2005 fueled recidivism: between that year and 2009, the number of families entering shelter increased by 58% while recidivism rose by 137%, and it is projected to reach 179% at the end of this fiscal year. This dramatic increase in recidivism following enactment of aggressive rehousing policies suggests that it was related to immediately moving families from transitional shelters to permanent housing before they were ready and able to retain independent housing through self-sufficiency. These families may not have had access to the services targeted to their specific needs that would have been available to them in shelter.

These policies have been costly to the City; prior to aggressive rehousing, the average cost of recidivism was declining and around $68 million a year--post-aggressive rehousing, the cost rose to about $141 million a year. While rapid rehousing resulted in quickly moving families out of shelter, and thus reducing the shelter census and length of stay, they have not been effective in achieving the long-term goal of permanently transitioning families to self-sufficiency. Clearly, reducing the shelter census should not be the goal--permanent self-sufficiency should be.

It is becoming increasingly clear that aggressive rehousing has failed in New York City, even though the City leadership has the political will to address the problem, a relatively large prevention system, and well-coordinated access to mainstream resources. Given this, there is little to suggest that these aggressive rehousing policies will work in other localities that may lack education, job training, and employment supports and the political commitment to address family homelessness with a comprehensive strategy.

More research is needed to understand why families come back into the shelter system so that we can create interventions to improve self-sufficiency. The rapid rehousing approach should be vigorously evaluated alongside the Continuum of Care approach to examine the long-term impact of these strategies on homeless families. Policymakers should closely monitor the rates at which rapidly rehoused families return to the shelter system and should anticipate that the recent 2009 HPRP and HEARTH funding, which dramatically shifted homeless services towards rapid rehousing, will have unintended consequences. The effects are likely only just beginning to show up in homeless data.

Going forward, it is necessary to examine and track the impact and outcomes of rapid rehousing in a meaningful way--with an eye to individual family needs as well as recidivism rates. While aggressive rehousing may be successful for some families, especially in the short-term, it may not be effective for many homeless families in the long-term. Shelters with targeted services can create "communities of opportunity," which effectively bridge the divide between homelessness and self-sufficiency. As part of a Continuum approach, shelters, when coupled with front-loaded services, can function as an effective tool in reducing family homelessness in the long run.

Lessons we are learning from New York City suggest that the rapid rehousing model should not be blindly replicated, but should instead be rigorously evaluated to better understand whom it works for and whom it does not.

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