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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Impact of Federal Homeless Policy on Rural Communities

You may have read HUD press releases about progress in eliminating homelessness in the United States. According to HUD, veteran and chronic homelessness have been significantly reduced over the last five years. The reason? The federal government has begun implementing proven, effective models. The key model to this success is "Housing First"- the approach of housing the "Chronically Homeless" (individuals who have been homeless more than a year or who have had four or more episodes of homelessness over the last three years) immediately without placing barriers in their way (such as sobriety, minimum income or criminal record standards), and then after being housed, wrapping those individuals in services that will help them stabilize and maintain housing. This model was first proven to be successful in New York City and other large urban metros. HUD has now tied Housing First implementation to federal homeless funding for the rest of the country.

Yet for the rural Northern California communities in which I work, the decline in chronic homelessness is not evident. On the contrary, it has been on the rise. Our Point-In-Time Surveys show that while the total number of homeless individuals in Butte County has decreased over the last four years as the economy has improved, the number of Chronically Homeless individuals has increased. The visibility of homeless individuals has certainly increased in downtowns and public areas, raising concerns from businesses, chambers of commerce, politicians and the public about the impact of homelessness on the economy and public safety. In Chico and Redding, the increase in homelessness has become a major topic of public debate as those communities seem powerless to stem the tide.

HUD's approach to these problems is to require that all Continuums of Care (CoCs) adopt a specific, prescriptive set of policies and procedures that implement Housing First and an organizational infrastructure to support it. This organizational infrastructure is extensive, with key elements being Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) and Community-wide Coordinated Entry into housing and services. This infrastructure involves extensive data collection, monitoring, and evaluation, as well as complex governance structures. (See the HEARTH ActOpening Doors Plan and the CoC Program Toolkit for more on these policy directives.) As a result of these directives, CoCs carry a growing administrative burden. Instead of sharing in the cost of this administrative burden (like the CDBG program), HUD has left it to communities to come up with the funding.

While many large metro areas have been able to mobilize the necessary resources to implement Housing First and its supporting administrative infrastructure, most smaller cities and rural areas have struggled to do so. Resources available to large metro areas that are less available to rural areas include: larger tax bases; constituencies more supportive of funding homeless interventions; and greater concentrations of philanthropic and CRA-incentivized investment.

Looking ahead, I see the following trends growing out of HUD's CoC policy:

  1. Rural communities that do not develop a political consensus to adopt HUD's policies (and raise the resources necessary to implement them) will drop out of the CoC Program and cease to receive competitive federal funding.
  2. While chronic homelessness continues to decrease in metro areas, it will continue to increase in rural areas.
  3. As the imbalance between cities and rural areas in dealing with the homeless problem continues to grow, government will attempt to make policy interventions to correct the imbalance.
  4. The responsibility for implementing HUD directives will increasingly fall to multi-jurisdictional conglomerate rural CoCs with private funding support, and State governments, as these will be the only entities with adequate capacity to maintain the CoC infrastructure required by HUD.
HUD policy is strongly influenced by who occupies the White House, so there is always the possibility of change with election cycles. However, I do not see federal homeless policy changing any time soon. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness within the Bush Administration initiated some of the current policies that have continued under the Obama Administration. Further, the CoC Program is one of the few domestic programs that has had bi-partisan support over the past four years, as CoC funding has not been cut nearly as drastically as other HUD programs such as HOME.

If you live or work in a rural area other than Northern California, I would be interested in knowing what trends in homelessness you see there. My perspective is based on what is happening in Northern California, but there may be other factors at work in rural areas that I am not aware of. Thanks for sharing your insight!

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