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2011 Rappaport Fellows

Adapting Massachusetts’ “housing first” policy for family homelessness

By David Linhart.   The administration of Governor Deval Patrick is midway into a five-year campaign to end homelessness in Massachusetts. On July 11, 2011, Patrick signed a law intended to move families into permanent housing quickly, rather than offering temporary shelter first. No one really knows what will help families who receive assistance to stay housed for the long haul, but encouraging supportive relationships with other assisted families is certainly a step in the right direction.

The campaign to end homelessness is driven by the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness (ICHH), comprised of the heads of fourteen state agencies and chaired by Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray. ICHH is committed to a “housing first” approach that unconditionally provides housing and support services to homeless people. “Housing first” represents a clean break from previous state policy that required housing to be earned through compliance with a recovery program and rules on sobriety and other conduct. Rather than returning homeless people to the shelters and the streets for lack of compliance, “housing first” begins with housing and then introduces further help on a voluntary basis. This new approach mitigates the cost of homelessness to taxpayers since shelters, motels, emergency rooms, and jail cells are more expensive than housing with support services. This approach also offers hope of eliminating homelessness rather than managing it—a potentially striking achievement.

An eighteen-month pilot study of statewide “housing first” efforts, however, shows mixed results: a reduction in homelessness of individuals, but an increase in homelessness of families. The number of families temporarily sheltered in motels is rising. This outcome means permanent housing is replacing temporary shelter for homeless individuals but not families.

As a result, the state is experimenting with a variety of family-oriented innovations such as offering young parents household management instructions in group settings. Teaching life skills to young parents in groups mirrors the ICHH’s recent adoption of peer support models, such as the “friends helping friends” approach. The Family Independence Initiative (FII) developed the “friends helping friends” approach to help families make connections, pool resources and invent solutions amongst themselves. The state is also emphasizing connections to community-based services such as health care and childcare. In essence, the state is stepping in until ongoing supportive networks take over, such as relationships formed among neighbors, at work and in community groups.

ICHH recognizes that remaining housed is largely a matter of being able to pay for housing costs, whether as a tenant or as a homeowner. Families that are able to increase their income stand a better chance of holding onto their homes once state support has ended. Individuals rather than families, however, are better positioned to career climb to better paying jobs.

Here’s one way to sum up job searches: even when new employment is scarce, it never dries up completely, and the best jobs go to the top achievers. Getting a better paying job might involve academic degrees and certifications as well as extensive searches. For many top-achieving students, that process is itself a full-time job. In a world where career shifts are common and strategic, the on-the-job learning curve includes more than developing basic competence. New employees need to build professional networks bigger than the employer, and they need to keep track of opportunities for career growth. For many ambitious employees, that process can turn a new full-time job into a special period of doing little outside of career climbing.

The challenge for families is that childcare becomes a full-time job for a parent or it eats up a full-time salary before any other bills get paid. Cultural preferences may arise in terms of how much time a parent should spend with a child. Schools look for parents to get involved in activities and educational networking, and the best opportunities for a child will be missed if a parent does not. It may be common to hear stories of individuals focusing on a career and then on a family, or of one parent focusing on a career while the other focuses on the family. But less common are the stories of parents being fully available to families and careers at the same time.

When it comes to family homelessness due to lack of income, giving parents access to the same career climbing techniques that individuals use may be insufficient. Innovation is needed to allow families to build layered networks of support at the same time, from professional organizations to educational institutions to childcare providers. Any successes will have the double benefit of building housing stability for families while also creating a family-friendly path to economic mobility.

David Linhart was a Rappaport Fellow in Law and Public Policy in 2011. He is pursuing a J.D. at Boston University School of Law. He received his B.S. and M.Eng. in Biological Engineering from Cornell University. As a Rappaport Fellow, David worked at The Community Builders, Inc., a nonprofit affordable housing developer.


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