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Scott Fuji is a gatekeeper of sorts for “Big Data” about Oahu’s homeless population.
Fuji heads PHOCUSED, the homeless advocacy group tasked with maintaining the “coordinated entry system” — which has so far assessed the needs of about 3,400 homeless households on the island — and he’s often called upon to crunch the data to keep track of the latest trends.
Earlier this year, out of this work came a realization: More than a quarter of the households fell into homelessness simply because they were short of money to pay their rent — but had no other underlying issues. Among homeless families, this was true of more than a half.
“We looked at that and were like, ‘That’s a lot of people,'” Fuji said. “When we brought this up to service providers, we started getting feedback from a lot of folks: ‘Yeah, this is something we’re definitely running into. We’re having issues around this.'”
That has led to an effort to expand the use of “shallow subsidies,” typically $150 to $500 a month, to quickly place struggling people back into housing — or keep them from becoming homeless in the first place.
The approach is known as “rapid rehousing,” a strategy that has been gaining traction across the country in recent years.
The thinking behind the approach is simple: It recognizes that a significant segment of homeless people, or those at risk of becoming homeless, has a stable source of income and only needs modest financial help and some “housing stabilization” services — instead of full-scale subsidies and intensive, ongoing case management.
“These people are taking responsibility for their lives — they just needed that little hand-up.” — Kimo Carvalho, The Institute for Human Services
In Hawaii, an array of city and state programs already incorporates the use of shallow subsidies, and officials are considering ways to expand them.
Fuji says the approach is tailor-made for Hawaii, given the state’s high cost of living.
“The affordability threshold is so high in Hawaii that, even if a family member is working, it may not be enough to remain stably housed,” Fuji said. “So what we’re looking at in terms of shallow subsidy is an idea that, with a little bit of subsidy, they can break through that affordability threshold and move out of the homeless situation.”
Kimo Carvalho, director of community relations at The Institute for Human Services, says the upside of this approach is that, compared to deeper subsidy programs like Section 8, it can be implemented cheaply.
According to PHOCUSED, it would cost about $1 million to provide shallow subsidies of $350 a month to 200 homeless households. By contrast, the city is now spending $3 million a year to run its Housing First program — the centerpiece of Hawaii’s effort to combat homelessness — with a goal of housing 110 people.
“It’s very cost-effective; our taxpayers’ dollars are stretched far,” Carvalho said. “And it helps the kinds of people that the public wants to hear about. These people are taking responsibility for their lives — they just needed that little hand-up.”
The idea of rapid rehousing first emerged back in 2008, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded a demonstration project. The following year, Congress put $1.5 billion behind the idea as part of the stimulus package and later gave HUD more authority to expand it.
The approach departs from the traditional model of addressing homelessness — which places people into permanent housing only after they receive support services to prepare them for self-sufficiency. It instead follows the Housing First philosophy and identifies stable housing as the most pressing need of homeless people.
“The affordability threshold is so high in Hawaii that, even if a family member is working, it may not be enough to remain stably housed.” — Scott Fuji, PHOCUSED
Across the country, Housing First has been implemented widely and proven effective, but it’s narrowly aimed at the chronically homeless — those with the highest need for intensive, ongoing case management — and makes use of Section 8, a deep-subsidy program that requires recipients to contribute only 30 percent of their income and can be available for an indefinite amount of time.
By contrast, rapid rehousing places homeless people back into housing — or keeps people from becoming homeless — by providing shallow subsidies for a limited time, leaving recipients to pay their own way after that.
In Honolulu, for instance, the city has been working with IHS and two other nonprofits to run the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program, which uses more than $825,000 from the federal Emergency Solutions Grant to provide rental assistance for up to 24 months. It’s geared toward those who make less than 30 percent of the area median income.
The state has also been distributing about $230,000 in federal funds to four agencies on the neighbor islands to run HPRP.
Carvalho says IHS has placed 385 people into stable housing under HPRP during fiscal year 2015.
“The ultimate goal is to help them build a threshold of savings and financial stability to get back up on your feet and climb up the economic ladder,” Carvalho said.
So far, most evidence suggest that rapid rehousing is effective in resolving homelessness — and preventing recurrence of it.
For instance, a 2011 HUD study found that nearly 85 percent of people who participated in rapid rehousing programs stayed in permanent housing once their subsidy ended.
A Georgia study also showed that, compared to the emergency shelter model, the approach was a big leap forward: During a two-year period, just 9 percent of those exiting rapid rehousing returned to homeless shelters — compared with 23 percent of those exiting emergency shelters.
But not all studies have yielded positive results.
In June, for instance, a HUD Family Options Study showed that rapid rehousing was a much less effective means of reducing homelessness than Section 8 vouchers.
The study tracked nearly 2,300 homeless families across a dozen cities, including 217 in Honolulu, to see which of four interventions lead to the best outcome: Section 8 vouchers; rapid rehousing; stays at transitional housing; or “usual care,” such as stays at emergency shelters and other assistance that families could find on their own.
While Section 8 vouchers are more expensive, and their use in Hawaii is especially challenging because of an overall shortage of affordable housing, the result showed that families who received the vouchers had the greatest increases in nearly every measure of housing stability: increased food stability and decreased school absences, psychological distress and substance abuse.
Families in rapid rehousing also saw positive outcomes, like increased food security and family income, but they returned to shelters at a rate comparable to families who were given no special services.
But none of this has yet to dampen the enthusiasm for rapid rehousing.
Fuji says that, in the end, it’s all about having a bevy of choices to meet disparate needs of homeless people. “There is no blanket solution, so to speak, to ending homelessness,” he said. “There are many types of homeless subpopulations, and they all require different types of services and subsidies.”
Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, says a growing body of research on rapid rehousing can only help refine the state’s strategy.
“Looking at successful programs in other communities, we’re starting to understand that the case management component is key,” Morishige said. “It’s not just about providing rental subsidies, but keeping the connection with the families as they face the hurdles along the way and making sure they have someone to go to to receive support.”
“There really isn’t a whole lot of information out there that discusses what the right formula is.” — Gary Nakata, Honolulu Department of Community Services
Gary Nakata, director of the Honolulu Department of Community Services, says he’ll continue to meet with service providers to get their feedback. “My focus is on talking with those who helped put our current programs in place and rely on them to fine-tune my understanding of what more could be done,” he said.
The challenge, Nakata says, is that rapid rehousing is such a new concept that best practices have yet to emerge.
“There really isn’t a whole lot of information out there that discusses what the right formula is,” Nakata said. “How much subsidies are you going to give and how long are you going to do it? Some people say it shouldn’t be more than five months. Other people say five years. And some people say (the subsidy should be) 20 percent of the person’s income. Other people say 50 percent.”
For her part, Jenny Lee, public policy director for the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, says city and state officials will have to be willing to experiment if they are serious about addressing the state’s homelessness crisis.
“We sometimes have to try something new. We can’t hold our breath and wait and hope that it gets better by doing the same thing,” Lee said.