Those who comprise our homeless population are changing but are the solutions to homelessness keeping pace?
Put another way, the face of homelessness is much more diverse than we assume, and it is consistently evolving as economies and social standards change. Unfortunately, misunderstanding the diverse face of homelessness can dilute the effectiveness of programs meant to address the housing crisis we’ve outlined in previous issues. Specifically, programs which may be effective in responding to one kind of homelessness are not likely to be effective in responding to a new and different kind of homelessness.
Consider these two scenarios:
- A person with severe and persistent mental illness cannot find housing as the erratic nature of his symptoms cause him to be unable to abide by the terms of a standard lease. This person has already been evicted from an apartment for displaying his symptoms and even though he has Social Security Disability and thus can afford some rent, he can’t pass the housing background check that virtually all landlords require before offering a lease. Nor, can he pay much more than $250 a month, even if he could pass the background checks.
- A single mother with two children works full-time at a job where she’s making $10 an hour ($1,600 a month). She has a two-bedroom apartment where she is paying $850 a month in rent. This is $100 below the average market rate in Kansas City for a two-bedroom unit. Her utilities run the average rate for a unit that size – $200 a month. Childcare costs are also $200 a month and transportation cost $100. With $1,350 in monthly expenses, plus food, health insurance, and other miscellaneous expenses, she manages to just break even most months. As time passed and the housing market expanded, her rent went up $50 a year for three consecutive years (now requiring $1,000 in rent) while her income remained static. Suddenly, she could no longer afford her housing and shortly thereafter was evicted for failure to pay. Adding insult to injury, she now has an eviction on her record-making access to future housing almost unattainable.
On paper, the result for both scenarios is the same – homelessness. While we know it’s worth addressing both situations because the cost of doing nothing to address homelessness is substantially greater to our communities than the cost of actually addressing it, we do well to recognize the solutions for these two situations are not the same.
To illustrate, consider two phases of housing development – construction and operations. What support needs to be offered in each of these phases to help solve the scenarios outlined above?
In the first scenario, philanthropic investments are needed in both the construction and operations phase. By alleviating some of the costs in construction, you reduce the amount of debt repayment obligations and thus allow for lower rents. But the investment needed is still a bit more. The gentleman we introduced in our first scenario is on a fixed income and still won’t likely be able to pay enough rent to cover the full cost of standard operating expenses. He may also need ongoing social service support as his symptoms may not dissipate regardless of his housing situation. Therefore, philanthropic investments are needed in both the construction and operations phase.
In the second scenario, the single mother just needs access to affordable housing. The investment in the construction phase is enough to bring rents down to a point of affordability, a point that, while lower than the market rate, doesn’t sacrifice the property’s ability to cover operating expenses going forward.
Confusing the different faces of homelessness or trying to apply a one-size-fits-all solution can lead to less than efficient answers. We see this clearly at Neighborhoods of Hope Community Housing (NHCH). Our homes are built for people shut out of the traditional housing market, and as we grow, we can then leverage assets and resources to address situations as difficult as the person with severe mental illness.
To accomplish this great work, NHCH asks for your donations to support both the construction and operations phases so that we can tackle the diverse nature of the housing crisis sweeping our country.
For more information contact Jim Mullin at firstname.lastname@example.org