Spotlight Exclusives

The Stable Families Initiative: A New Approach to Eradicating Chronic Homelessness

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This commentary is part of a series highlighting the work of the 2013-14 Ideas for Action Award winners, sponsored by The Northwest Area Foundation, University of Minnesota, and University of Washington. This award recognizes organizations that take practical and innovative approaches to helping low-income individuals.

Homelessness is the most visible and wrenching consequence of extreme poverty in America. It has devastating impacts on affected families and is a major challenge facing communities across the country. Hennepin County, Minnesota has been at the forefront of efforts to combat homelessness, and our system of reconnecting families to stable housing has largely been successful. But it is now clear that too many people are being readmitted into the shelter system and that a new approach is needed to end chronic homelessness.

To meet this challenge, the county government launched the Stable Families Initiative (SFI), a cutting-edge program specifically tailored to the needs of these at-risk families. This effort, made possible by the collaboration of a diverse range of community organizations and government agencies, offers the potential to not only assist vulnerable families in Hennepin County, but to serve as a model for other communities across the country.

Hennepin County۪s policy of guaranteeing shelter to all who need it one of only a few jurisdictions with such policies in the country dates back to 1994. However, new obstacles have limited the effectiveness of efforts to rehouse these families. The growing need resulting from the Great Recession and the increasing cost of housing throughout the country has taken an enormous toll on low-income families. Despite these higher costs of living, federal cash assistance for families provided through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has remained stagnant.

In the Twin Cities metro area, the average apartment rent recently surpassed $1,000, and the current vacancy rate is under 3 percent. A family of four on TANF receives $621 a month. An analysis of wages earned by families living in shelters suggests that less than 30 percent have a job at the time of shelter entry, and even those who are employed earn a median wage of just $317 per month. One year later, the same percentage can expect to have a job, with earnings of only $649 a month. This sort of economic situation doesn۪t lead to stable housing.
Over the past eight years, Hennepin County has seen the number of families entering  shelter almost double, from 888 in 2006 to 1,572 in 2013. At $30 a day per person, the costs add up fast. Especially worrisome is the increasing recurrence of homelessness among families who had moved into stable housing. In 2013, 350 families nearly 25 percent of admittees had previously cycled through the shelter system.
The SFI is focused on the needs of these 350 families. They deserve a more thoughtful intervention, one that recognizes the extreme poverty in which they live and helps them break that cycle. We already know who was in shelter before. And we know who is most at risk of coming back: families of color (racial disparities in Hennepin County are among the highest in the country), young parents under the age of 25 with young children, and parents who have not completed high school.  

The SFI embodies a four-pronged approach that emphasizes outreach and prevention for families who left shelter in the past two years, the coordination of services and increased assistance in finding employment, outreach and additional rent assistance for at-risk families, intensive case management and rent subsidies for young parents, and permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless families.

The program offers oversight and light assistance to those at risk of slipping back into homelessness, with more aggressive interventions when families show more immediate need. Central to these efforts is a commitment to more personalized and rigorous support to those looking for stable employment. Through the SFI, clients will receive one-on-one assistance in pursuing employment leads.
It۪s too early to know the impact of the initiative, but the results will be closely monitored to see if demand for the shelter services goes down as we better assist those who struggle to maintain permanent housing.

Because the program isn۪t currently large enough to serve all 350 families we expect to see this year, the full population will be divided into control and treatment groups for some of the services, offering an opportunity to rigorously test their effectiveness. The lessons we learn can hopefully inform efforts in other states and cities.

The process we went through to develop the SFI can be replicated. We saw a trend in our community that was troubling and worked to understand its underlying causes. Then, based on these findings and working in collaboration with policymakers, front-line workers, advocates, and a broad coalition of funders, we developed a comprehensive response and created systems to monitor the results.

Homelessness is a daunting challenge, but not an impossible one to solve if we are persistent and focused. Through creative, comprehensive efforts like the SFI, we can help the most vulnerable families achieve long-lasting security and stability.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Lisa Thornquist is the director of research for the Minneapolis/Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness.

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