family homelessness

The startling numbers behind the increase in family homelessness (and 5 strategies working to reverse them)

The daily ticker of the number of homeless families entering the Commonwealth’s emergency shelter system is telling.

A look at the numbers from the last three days of 2016 alone  shows 37 new families are starting 2017 in a shelter instead of a home. They are families whose lives are already unraveled, now facing the uncertainty of where they will live, how they will pay the bills and maybe even where their children will start school after the holiday break.

The effects of family homelessness on children goes even further. The Boston-based organization Children’s HealthWatch found recently that “children in families behind on rent were 52% more likely to be at-risk for developmental delays” than children in stable housing situations. Homeless children are also twice as likely to repeat a grade and four times more likely to develop asthma.

A growing, persistent crisis

There are currently over 3,700 families in Massachusetts who are homeless, up from 3,600 at our last count. The good news is that number is down from a high of 4,800 families in 2014. Over the past two decades, however, the number of homeless families in the state has risen by 115%, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development annual “point-in-time” counts. Massachusetts accounts for 7% of all homeless families in the United States.

Why the dramatic increase? Three local family homelessness experts, Rachel Heller, CEO at Citizens Housing and Planning Association, Libby Hayes, executive director at Homes for Families, and Liz Rogers, Director of Program Planning and Evaluation at Father Bill’s & MainSpring, cite high housing costs, lack of affordable housing production, lack of rental subsidies, high costs of child care and low wages as contributing factors to the increasingly complex issue of family homelessness.

“The primary reason that family homelessness has been on the rise over the past decade is that wages have not kept pace with the cost of rent,” says Hayes. “The recession and foreclosure crisis exacerbated these dynamics, so even as the economy and job market has recovered for many, those with the lowest incomes are still pushed out of the housing market.“

What’s worse, according to the 2015 report On Solid Ground, which was funded by United Way, an estimated 4,200 additional families are living in unstable or doubled-up living situations, move multiple times a year, or are behind on rent.

Ending family homelessness will require a comprehensive approach

“Homelessness does not always begin, or look, the way most people think it does; it is often caused by a combination of complex factors,” says Michael K. Durkin, President at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “Tackling it is not something that a single organization can do alone.”

Here are five strategies recommended by United Way:

1. Provide emergency financial assistance to families to help prevent them from becoming homeless and entering the state’s emergency shelter system. A report released recently by the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership (MBHP) shows that the Commonwealth’s investment of $3.6 million in MBHP’s RAFT program, which provides short-term financial assistance to families who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness, saved the state $45 million by keeping over 1,300 families out of shelter. This calculation was based on an average shelter stay of 10.5 months costing the state $36,855 per family. RAFT stands for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition.

“Eviction prevention, flexible cash assistance, home-based stabilization services and rapid rehousing services have proven to be effective,” says Liz Rogers, Director of Program Planning and Evaluation at Father Bill’s & MainSpring. “We need to continue to right-size each of these resources so the overall system works to reduce lengths of (shelter) stay.”

United Way is also leading a regional consortium of homelessness providers in partnership with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services to prevent family homelessness through the provision of flexible funds to help stabilize families at risk of losing their housing. Uses of funds vary from rental assistance to clothing, food and other basic needs.

2. Stabilize family incomes by funding programs that provide financial coaching and job training and placement services. Income and housing are inextricably linked. Community-based organizations such as United Way’s network of financial stability centers in Boston, Quincy, Lawrence, Lynn and Chelsea have helped individuals find jobs, increase their credit scores, and increase their monthly income and assets. Father Bill’s & MainSpring has implemented a “Family Track” to help coordinate resources on behalf of families to help meet their particular needs.

3. Address the comprehensive needs of homeless families by focusing on both the needs of children and their parents. In Lynn, for example, United Way partnered with the Lynn Family Success Center, Lynn Public Schools and the Siemer Foundation to provide over 150 families that are homeless or in unstable housing with intensive support. Case managers work with the schools to identify homeless students, connect their families to financial opportunity services such as housing assistance, job training and financial coaching and provide students with tutoring and out-of-school time services.

4. Seed Innovation. Recognizing that many good programs start in small pockets of work, United Way partnered with the Boston College School of Social Work to award the inaugural “IF Challenge” funding prize to surface innovative, research-backed and feasible ideas that can be taken to a larger scale and help change the landscape of family homelessness in Massachusetts.

Winning ideas include replicating HomeStart’s existing and successful eviction prevention program in Boston, developing an app with MBHP to connect families to housing resources, and building a campaign with Children’s HealthWatch to leverage the highly successful Earned Income Tax Credit program to help low-income working families pay for the cost of housing.

5. Drive Public Policies that Create Statewide Impact. Efforts like the On Solid Ground Coalition are bringing together different sectors to help families increase their housing stability and economic mobility. “We are working to change systems so that programs work better together for families, increase housing opportunities for families with low incomes, increase support services such as child care, and track progress so we know what is working and what challenges need to be addressed,” says Heller of CHAPA.

Homes for Families recently led efforts to restore and increase funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, a state-funded housing subsidy. “The re-investments in this program have proven critical in reducing reliance on motels, developing new supportive housing, and rehousing veterans and chronically homeless individuals and families with children,” says Hayes of Homes for Families.

Now is the “point in time”

United Way is placing a critical focus this year on working with a broad set of partners across sectors to identify a set of policies that can be implemented this legislative session and will continue to raise awareness of the causes of family homelessness and its effects on children.

This year’s Annual Point-in-Time Homeless Census will be conducted nationally and statewide on January 25th, which will give policy makers, funders and providers new data on the number of homeless families and individuals in Massachusetts and across the country.

Let’s make this point in time the moment in time when we make homelessness history.