Sunday, May 17, 2009

The stereotypical image of homelessness is a disheveled man, clutching a bottle of cheap wine in a brown paper bag and shuffling along the sidewalk. But that is an old image now and fails to reflect the growing reality of homelessness.

The combined effects of increasing unemployment, poverty and the lack of affordable housing, now exacerbated by the severe economic crisis, have led to a dramatic increase of homeless families. Recent news reports have told of tent cities and shantytowns, with parents and their children living out of cars. And it is clearly a growing problem.

A December 2008 annual survey of 25 major cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors profiles the new face of homelessness: “The report reveals that on average, cities reported a 12 percent increase in homelessness from 2007 to 2008, with 16 cities citing an increase in the number of homeless families.”

Similarly, the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions’ latest annual survey at 137 rescue missions across North America in October 2008 reported that “women with children made up 66 percent of the homeless families counted in the survey, a jump from 55 percent in 2007 and the highest figure recorded in the last eight years.”

What should we do? Ultimately, of course, reversing unemployment with jobs that allow a family to afford housing is the best answer to homelessness. But for the immediate crisis, cities around the country, partnering with faith-based and neighborhood groups, the federal government and the private sector, have been developing an array of programs that actually work. Let me suggest a three-step strategy:

First, when a family loses its home through eviction, foreclosure, etc., the immediate need is for emergency shelter so they (especially the children) do not end up on the street. There is a broad array of shelters across the country — many operated by faith-based organizations such as Gospel missions, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and other nonprofits, often in partnership with local governments. Many are hosted by individual religious congregations or networks of congregations, such as the Interfaith Hospitality Networks, currently with 140 affiliates in 39 states and the District of Columbia. But these are good solutions mostly for emergency situations.

A second step involves providing transitional housing for families to move into as quickly as possible. Shelters are not equipped to provide medium-term housing while a family becomes stabilized, deals with a myriad of problems, works on employment, etc., and prepares for permanent housing. Families facing an emergency and dislocation experience a great deal of trauma and distress that should be ameliorated through greater access to counseling and emotional support.

A number of cities have been experimenting with what are called “Housing First” programs — based on quickly getting families into housing, along with providing supportive services. Experience has taught those working on the related problems of homelessness, unemployment, family issues and even addiction that the base of secure housing is the best first step by providing the stability necessary to begin to solve the other problems that people have.

Third, a long-term solution depends on increasing the availability of affordable housing — both in renting and in making homeownership more possible for those who circumstances and abilities make that option appropriate. Here again, effective private-public partnerships have led to successful programs.

The Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program was enacted by Congress in 1986 as an incentive for developers to invest in affordable rental housing. Housing tax credits are awarded to housing developers, who can then offer them to investors to raise capital to buy, rehab or construct housing. The program has resulted in approximately 1.3 million affordable apartments.

Other programs are designed to directly assist low-income families with affordable housing. The bipartisan Poverty Forum, which I co-chair with Michael Gerson, recommended the creation of 2 million new “opportunity housing vouchers” that enable families to afford housing in communities they could not otherwise afford.

Among other things, such mobility and opportunity is critical in getting children into good public schools and in accessibility to employment. President Obama’s FY 2010 budget includes increased funding for these vouchers.

Another program with bipartisan support is the National Housing Trust Fund. Signed into law by President Bush in 2008, this trust fund would provide permanent, dedicated funding to build or rehab 1.5 million units of housing over the next 10 years, both to increase rental housing and homeownership for low-income families, including those who are homeless. Here again, the recently passed FY2010 budget resolution includes increased funding for the trust fund.

Ultimately, an integrated program that brings together all three elements of emergency, transitional and permanent housing offers the best chance of success. The nonprofit, public and private sectors, each doing what it does best and working in partnership with the others, can develop the policies and resources needed. And the public investments required are ultimately less expensive than the social and economic costs of growing homelessness and its many negative consequences.

Finally, the approach of providing safe emergency shelter services, moving to secure transitional housing and then creating more affordable rental and homeownership could make a major difference for thousands of homeless families.

We should all work and pray for the day when there are no more stories of families and kids living in tents, cars and under bridges in the richest country in the world.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners.

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