The trouble with transitional housing
The recent efforts by the state of Hawaii to build more homeless shelters -- including the recent announcement by the governor to set aside an additional $20 million to build a new facility in the urban Honolulu area -- demands more scrutiny by the public to ensure that these facilities do, in fact, provide a successful path to reduce homelessness. Many advocates have been pushing for a moratorium on new emergency shelters and an emphasis on building more subsidized housing. The merits of transitional shelters, however, have received far less attention regarding their effectiveness. So, what is a transitional shelter and do we need them?
A transitional homeless shelter is typically a service-enriched residential facility for homeless people that imposes a maximum stay of two years. The vast majority of transitional homeless shelters serve families with children. On Oahu, we currently have six traditional transitional facilities serving families. Each carries a monthly program fee ranging from $500 to $800, depending on unit size and facility.
Although many of these transitional facilities are nearly identical to rental apartments, individuals residing in these units are still considered "homeless" by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition. Unlike the private market, the facilities are kept drug and alcohol free. There is no tenant-landlord agreement. Additional leniency for late program payments is also characteristic.
The theory behind transitional shelters is that homeless families need a place to stabilize, to link themselves to services, treatment, benefits and employment. Classes are provided, and often mandated, in money management, child nurturing and employment preparation -- all with the goal of getting families "ready" for permanent housing and economic self-sufficiency within two years.
So what's the problem?
The best way to understand the inherent flaws with this type of housing is to examine the myths and realities of transitional housing for homeless families in Honolulu.
Myth: Transitional housing is the road to re-enter the private housing market.
Reality: Only a small minority of families move from transitional housing to the private housing market. Among the 1,180 individuals (about 300 families) who reported moving to a rental apartment situation, less than 20 percent re-entered the private housing market.
Data from the state of Hawaii's Homeless Management Information System recorded that 904 individuals, or 77 percent, entered public housing, while 63 individuals, about 5 percent, moved with a Section 8 government housing subsidy. Rather than being a stepping stone to re-entering the private housing market, transitional housing essentially remains a queue for public housing entrance.
Myth: Families experience economic mobility, or increased income, as they gain strength during their stay in transitional housing.
Reality: While transitional facilities provide classes and encouragement to families, data show few families experience significant income increases from entry to exit in a transitional shelter. Families usually go from one subsidy to another. Why? Because the incentive is to wait for a lifetime subsidy.
The current homeless shelter system is not an engine of economic mobility for families and never will be. The public still does not fully understand this fact.
While families pay $500 to $800 for monthly transitional housing program fees, public housing has no income minimum. Many, if not most, families experience a fee reduction when they enter public housing, since rent is calculated at 30 percent of gross income. The incentive is actually to decrease or hide income and pay lower rent. The average public housing rent in Hawaii is $350 per month, and only 22 percent pay more than $500 per month.
Myth: Transitional housing helps families that need help the most.
Reality: A recent national study by Dennis Culhane, one of the country's leading researchers in homeless services, concludes that too often the rules of homeless shelters prevent providers from working with the most needy families, especially those with active substance abuse. Like many social programs, homeless family services too often "cream the crop."
Much of the support provided to families is also unnecessary, since research also shows that families with only a housing subsidy do just as well as families with a subsidy and "supportive" services (case management).
Myth: But if we didn't have transitional housing, all these families would be living homeless on the streets and beach parks.
Reality: A large percentage of families living in transitional shelters did not come "from the streets," but rather from a situation living with family or friends. Doubling-up is the natural solution to housing instability and can reduce housing costs for both the host and the guest family, while providing natural supports for child care and fostering other intergenerational benefits. Again, doubling-up is not homelessness, it is the natural, economically beneficial solution to homelessness for families and individuals.
So, what do we do with the hundreds of units of transitional housing we currently have and the hundreds more planned by the state? The answer is simple: Convert them to permanent housing. All you need do is eliminate the stay maximum and you can re-label them. A simply maneuver, but one that will radically change the system and produce the following positive benefits.
» Reduce the number of homeless. Why should families living in an apartment or studio who can come and go essentially as they please still be considered homeless? By definition, allowing families to stay in these apartments as long as they want, while still providing services upon request, but not mandated, would immediately reduce the homeless number by 25 percent in Hawaii and allow policies to focus on the unsheltered homeless. Costs also could be reduced because time would not be wasted trying to get these families to move. They would move -- like everyone else -- giving space to the next family in need of this type of supportive housing -- when they wanted or could afford to.
» Eliminate gaming the public housing preference system. If you lived in a former "transitional," you would no longer be considered homeless. Families from emergency shelters could also be triaged for these units -- again, preventing them from working the shelter system to get public housing. You would have to actually remain unsheltered and homeless -- living on the beach or park -- or doubled-up with family to get the "homeless" preference for public housing.
» Greater incentive to increase household income. If the family is waiting for public housing, there is little need to increase income. In particular, there is little incentive to add adult earners to their household. One reason why Filipino households in Hawaii have lower than expected rates of poverty and homelessness despite their relatively low per capita income is because they tend to have multiple income earners in each household.
In many ways, the homeless service system is still quite perverse. The people who need support and assistance the most -- whose core, solvable problem is housing instability -- are put into a system where they are continually asked to leave to go somewhere else. The system also tries to keep them with a status of "homeless" for the longest possible time. Who does that help? No one. Homeless services should prioritize housing stability, not feature it.
If you need to house families immediately, then fund more housing vouchers, which are faster and typically cheaper in the long run. The proposed $20 million could fund 500 vouchers for three years. And if there is more money to build a facility, then build a permanent apartment building, single-room occupancy housing or even a boarding house. Remember, homeless individuals need rents between $100 to $400 per month -- that's the reality -- and that's not affordable housing, that's shared living and rooming houses.
But whatever you build, please don't call it "homeless," and when you let the tenants in, don't ask them to leave -- or you just created a problem that didn't exist.
Michael Ullman is a researcher, nonprofit consultant and doctoral student in the School of Social Work, University of Hawaii-Manoa. He also is the creator of "Truly Dually," a musical about chronic homelessness.