By Jenny Chung C’12
According to School of Social Policy and Practice Professor Dennis Culhane, approximately 150,000 people are chronically homeless across the United States.
Culhane spoke as a panelist at “In Search of Shelter: Local and National Strategies for Alleviating Homelessness,” during which he named Housing First programs as a highly effective solution to reducing the prevalence of homelessness.
“Intervention costs less to the taxpayer than having people continue to be homeless,” he said, citing the reduced hospitalization and incarceration rates of Housing First participants as evidence of the programs’ efficacy.
Culhane added that federal and local governments must allocate resources toward solving homelessness directly rather than keeping the homeless population in shelters.
Under the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, he said, communities will be rewarded for keeping the average length of a shelter stay as low as possible by offering shelter residents temporary rental assistance with the expectation that many will find employment.
Dr. Ralph da Costa Nunez, President of the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, however, argued that rapid rehousing should not be regarded as an ideal solution.
“We’re really talking about poverty, not just housing issues,” Nunez said, adding that the problems afflicting low-income families—for instance, employment challenges and domestic violence—make “maintaining a home extremely difficult.”
Advocating the transformation of shelters into “communities,” Nunez contended that “[telling] a family coming into a shelter the first thing we do is give you housing” can be viewed as “a crime.”
He maintained that New York, the “capital of homelessness in the U.S.,” is currently on its third rapid rehousing program after the previous two had failed.
While “rapid rehousing is becoming the buzzword of the day,” he said, reconceptualizing shelters is substantially more likely to reduce the incidence of homelessness. “Shelters need to move to a new stage and no longer offer just services, but be developed as community resources.”
Nikki Johnson-Huston, who had been homeless for part of her childhood and is now an attorney at the City of Philadelphia Law Department, spoke to the difficulties of long-term planning while homeless.
“You’re thinking hour by hour, day by day,” she said, adding that poverty issues present another obstacle to those attempting to lift themselves out of homelessness.
According to Dr. Edward J. Speedling, Manager of the Homeless Veterans Internship Program at Project H.O.M.E., rehabilitating the homeless hinges on helping individuals find meaningful work and contributing to their ability to become self-sufficient.
“We are very aware that the journey back from homelessness entails rebuilding the foundations of people’s lives to reclaim independence and dignity,” he said, “especially those whose lives have been impaired by addiction, mental illness or both.”
Project H.O.M.E., which currently houses over 300 residents in nine residences, employs a model that “uses the restorative powers of work, education and community to help formerly homeless veterans remake their lives,” Speedling said. The program assesses participants’ skills and interests upon entry in order to match them with employers offering training and internships later on.
President and CEO of People’s Emergency Center Farah Jimenez affirmed that “defining success” in the field of homelessness programs is based on “understanding the model of providing services.”
She outlined two models—the first based on securing permanent housing for families, the second on assuming greater involvement in the lives of families such that once they obtain permanent housing, they enjoy a greater likelihood of success.
According to Jimenez, People’s Emergency Center can be understood in terms of the second model. “A lot of the families we are now seeing in shelters are young women who have aged out of foster care or grown up in public housing—they find themselves in a shelter but haven’t been given any model of parenting,” she said. “Our focus is on teaching them parenting skills.”
Nunez, another proponent of the “recovery” model, asserted that while “shelters cost a lot of money, prisons and foster care cost even more.”
“The sentiment that ‘no child should live in a shelter’ is very true—that’s why no shelter should be a shelter,” he said, adding that “shelters have become the front lines of the war on poverty in America.”
In response, Culhane argued that there has been a significant lack of data indicating transitional housing is more effective than permanent housing, and that poverty cannot be addressed by placing people into homeless shelters.
“We have to make mainstream social welfare systems more effective—not grow the homeless system,” he said.
As the dialogue approached its conclusion, Speedling highlighted the need for public-interest lawyers and other concerned individuals across Philadelphia to contribute to anti-poverty efforts.
“These issues are really destroying the fabric of this city,” he said.
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