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Family Homelessness: Real Progress and Real Problems

Let’s start with the numbers on the good side of the ledger. From HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), which looks at homelessness on the national level, since 2013:

  • Family homelessness has declined by 21%

  • Unsheltered family homelessness declined by more than 50%

  • Rapid Re-Housing programs for families grew by 400%

  • Across all models of re-housing homeless families, homeless service systems have the capacity to assist roughly 86,000 homeless families

Those are some good numbers, indicative of HUD and of homeless service agencies across the country starting to prioritize services for homeless families. Renaissance is one such agency: our Family Support Program, launched in 2018, will house 45 chronically homeless families - over 140 individuals.

Now, the other side of the ledger. Locally, here in Chicago, according to a 2018 study by the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs, roughly 10,000 families experienced homelessness in 2017, with over 8,000 of those families living “doubled up” and 2,000 being literally homeless – meaning in shelters or on the streets. And nationally, though homeless systems across the country collectively have developed permanent housing resources for 58,000 homeless families, nearly 150,000 homeless families will be served in temporary housing, leaving 92,000 families without access to dedicated permanent housing assistance.

Clearly there has been progress, and just as clearly there is a long way to go to end homelessness for families. More money – a lot more money – is needed. And that money has to be used in two ways: re-housing those families who are already homeless, and preventing families from becoming homeless in the first place.

Re-housing families that are homeless means investing in program models that are aimed at providing permanent housing like Permanent Supportive Housing (which Renaissance operates through its Family Support Program) and Rapid Re-Housing programs, which move homeless families that are experiencing acute, not chronic, homelessness into housing and provides short-term rent subsidies and supportive services.

Increased funding for programs that re-house homeless families address the needs of families that are already homeless. What is also needed – and what is in very, very short supply – is funding to stop families from becoming homeless. Funding to turn the homeless spigot off. Preventing homelessness is far less expensive, and far less difficult, than treating homelessness through housing and support programs. Yet at the local, state, and national levels, prevention gets the short shrift in funding. As one of Chicago’s delegate agencies funded for homeless prevention services, we at Renaissance know firsthand that the money we get from the city and state for homeless prevention (HUD, at the national level, doesn’t fund this!) isn’t close to what is needed to meet the needs of families facing homelessness in this City. We run out of it in a matter of months – as do the rest of the delegate agencies. What happens to families seeking prevention support once the money for prevention runs out each year? How many families who don’t get prevention support end up homeless…end up in trauma and crisis, children being harmed and losing their sense of safety and wellbeing… And how much more do we end up spending on these families that have become homeless instead of spending a little to prevent their homelessness?

While there’s some good news about addressing family homelessness, one can’t help but feel that the good news is simply not enough.

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