Friday, October 14, 2011

Some Local Solutions to Homelessness

Despite the hundreds of homeless or at-risk families assisted by the Ocean County Board of Social Services every year with state and federal funds, and in spite of the best efforts of many non-profit charitable organizations dedicated to helping the homeless and others in need, the problem of homelessness has not been resolved and continues to grow.  In a recent survey of agencies and organizations, the Ocean County Human Services Advisory Council (HSAC) Planning Committee to Address Homelessness identified the following as the greatest gaps in the service delivery system:  affordable housing, transitional housing, emergency shelters and transportation. 
This document identifies some possible ways to fill those critical gaps. Most of them reflect the “housing first” approach endorsed by the federal and many state governments, as well as by a large number of non-profits and other providers of assistance to homeless families and individuals.  “Housing first” relies upon the placement of  homeless people in long-term housing as soon as possible, without requiring them to complete or even begin programs aimed at resolving the underlying issues that have caused or contributed to their homelessness.  This makes sense, since involuntary homelessness is a housing problem, and can be solved by providing housing.  Once the individuals or families are stabilized, services are delivered as needed on an ongoing basis. 
A growing number of studies have found that “housing first” significantly improves the effectiveness of these services, and dramatically reduces the number of participants who become homeless again. Personal issues (economic, physical, mental, emotional, etc.) that, in certain individual, social and societal contexts can yield a host of negative outcomes, including homelessness, are most effectively addressed after a homeless individual or family has achieved a measure of stability in permanent, affordable housing.  Moreover, from an economic perspective the “housing first”  studies also find that employing “housing first” saves hundreds of thousands of dollars by significantly reducing the number of emergency room visits, police and ambulance calls, etc.
Emergent relief and homelessness prevention

·         Construct (or convert an existing building) to a permanent facility that provides emergency short-term shelter, intensive screening and service delivery, and rapid placement into voucher-subsidized permanent housing with appropriate services delivered on an ongoing basis thereafter.  Transitional units are also available on site if necessary.   [Model:  Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center]

·         Adopt a more direct “housing first” approach that uses motels/hotels for emergency help and moves families and individuals into permanent housing with services as soon as possible using vouchers. [Model:  Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness Housing First Demonstration Initiative]

·         Put resources into, and recognize by ordinance or resolution, the current “tent city” as a key source of both emergency shelter and transitional housing; allow it to construct additional on-site structures, as well as use trailers and other mobile facilities to improve its operation and become a permanent resource. (This could be accomplished on the present site or at another location.)  [Model:   Village of Hope/Community of Hope, Fresno, CA]    
Transitional/Short-term Housing

·         On –site transitional dwellings.  [Model:  Bergen Cty Housing, Health and Human Services Center]; improvements to “Tent City” [see above]; subsidized motel placement for those not eligible for other emergency shelter programs.  (The latter include working people, disabled individuals not on SSI, and others vulnerable households.)

·         Agency/organization rental of existing market-rate apartments throughout County for short-term use by people until they move to permanent housing [similar to other programs now in operation.]

Affordable housing and transportation

·         Increase the supply of rooming/boarding homes, efficiency apartments and other types of supportive housing, especially for those with mental/physical disabilities and substance abuse problems.    (For example:  construct or rehab small mid-size supportive housing  facilities operated by non-profits and located at scattered sites near bus routes; 15 such buildings containing  15 efficiency apartments would provide 225 permanent housing units.)   [Models:  Hamilton Supportive Hsg, Neptune; Eva’s Village, Paterson; State Street Program, Perth Amboy; Veterans Housing Project, Highland Park]

·         Locate manufactured homes in small clusters on scattered sites (primarily for families)

·         Obtain a dedicated number of federal or state housing vouchers; and/or increase supply of “ local” vouchers (for example, use of more federal HOME funds for tenant-based vouchers)  [Model:  Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness;  HOME-funded voucher program currently operated by OC]

·         Overlay zoning for small starter homes, accessory apartments, multi-family dwellings near bus routes, apartments above commercial structures or parking lots, etc.

Some possible sources of funding

·         Secure a dedicated supply of federal Housing Choice and state SRAP vouchers

·         Establish a county-based Homelessness Trust Fund as a long-term funding source for vouchers, rent payments, permanent housing, etc.   

·         Reallocate and pool current HUD grants (HOME, CDBG, etc.); access other federal/state/ local sources:  Special Needs Trust Fund (HMFA), other HMFA programs, federal Section 811 Housing program, local developer fee ordinances; sale of county/local bonds; etc.

·         United Way and other major charitable donors

Final thought:  a collaborative effort involving the County, all of its municipalities, the business community, religious congregations and other groups could implement some or all of these solutions in a manner characterized by scattered sites and widely shared responsibility.

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