Monique Chandler, with her son Logan. They have been in rapid re-housing since October.
In the midst of the Great Recession, as hundreds of thousands of people were losing their jobs each month, Congress authorized $1.5 billion aimed at keeping this rising unemployment from sparking a nationwide homelessness crisis. In 2009, as part of the federal stimulus bill, the government created a new program to quickly get homeless people into apartments, or keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.
Now, the federal program is over, but rapid re-housing, as it’s called, has caught on across the country. In the District, it’s become one of the main tools for helping families out of homelessness. But some homeless advocates question the program’s success.
This month, 254 homeless families are housed at the District’s largest family shelter, D.C. General. About three times that many are living in apartments scattered throughout the city, supported by rapid re-housing subsidies.
A reprieve, but only temporary
Monique Chandler lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Southeast with her three-year-old son.
“I made it so that he didn't see mommy worry, he didn't see mommy cry,” she says. “I didn't let him see that side of me, so he won't remember none of this. He'll remember the good and not the bad.”
Right now her only income comes from TANF, or welfare payments. She pays 40 percent of that income toward rent; D.C.’s rapid re-housing program pays the rest.
For most of her adult life, Chandler has paid her own way: For 14 years, she was an administrative assistant at The Washington Post. But in 2013, she was laid off, as the company downsized. Soon, she didn’t have a place to stay.
“It was very devastating to the programs and hear me called ‘homeless family.’ You know, I beat myself up a lot, because I’m not working, I’m a mother, I can’t provide for my son, I don't have a place for him," she says.
For 11 months, Chandler and her son were in emergency shelter, put up by the city in a motel on New York Avenue NW. Last fall, she was offered an apartment through rapid re-housing. It was good news: She'd get her own place again, but the rent subsidy would run out in a year, and then she'd be expected to pay the full, market-rate rent herself — $1,500 a month.
“And I’m just like, well, I’m looking ahead of the 12-month period that they help you out. What if after the 12 months I’m not working? What am I going to do?" she says.
She decided to take the apartment, but if she doesn't find another job this year, she could be in trouble again.
“I've thought about that a lot. But this apartment has motivated me so much to not give up. I don't care where I have to work, or how many jobs I have to attain. I'm not losing my place," she says.
Defining housing success
Kelly Sweeney McShane is the president and CEO of Community of Hope, the organization that, funded by the city, placed Chandler in an apartment. She says rapid re-housing represents a shift in thinking about homelessness.
“Historically, we've provided shelter to keep families safe, and then there’s also been long-term supportive vouchers, which are really important," she says.
But that long-term help is also expensive. Rapid re-housing is a way to help more people, more quickly. “Sort of spread your dollars a little farther," she says.
It’s not the right answer for everyone. But it could be for the majority of D.C.’s homeless families — about 80 percent, according to needs assessments conducted when families enter shelter.
Sweeney McShane says for families who try it, rapid re-housing is working.
“We have certainly found that the families that we work with, the last couple of years, 87 percent of the families have not returned to shelter after two years of their assistance ending," she says.
But critics say the city is relying too much on the program.
“You really just have to look at the math,” says Patty Mullahy Fugere is executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. She says for many people getting by on welfare or disability assistance, the math doesn't add up.
“At the end of the District’s subsidy of their rent, you know, there’s just no way they're going to maintain based on that very limited income that they have," she argues.
She says the program’s high success rate doesn't tell the full story, since it’s based not on the number of people who stay in their apartments, but on the number who don't show up at shelters again.
“Success could mean that a family is doubled up again. That a family is couch-surfing, that a parent is back with an abusive partner. But they're successful, because they haven’t come back into shelter," she says.
Dominique Foster has been in rapid re-housing for about a year. When the rent subsidy ends in March or April, she won’t be able to afford the $1,900 a month for the four-bedroom townhouse where she lives with her four kids.
“I’m really not sure where I'm going to go,” says Foster. “I just probably have to find a one bedroom or something. And still try to afford that. It won't be enough room, but they'll have a roof over their head.”
She has two part-time jobs, and she says hours will pick up in the summer.
“The money’s there, I can make the money. But right now, because it’s so slow, my pay stubs aren’t showing that," she says.
Lingering problem: affordable housing
At the heart of D.C.’s homelessness problem is the high cost of housing, and the high unemployment rate. The unemployment rate for single parents in D.C. is above 20 percent.
Kate Coventry, a policy analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, says to afford market-rate rent, a single mom making minimum wage would have to work three full time jobs, or more than 120 hours a week.
“The District lost half of its affordable housing between 2000 and 2010, so our wages have not kept pace with that loss in affordable housing and that increase in housing costs," she says.
The District is investing heavily in rapid re-housing. The budget for fiscal year 2015 includes $26 million for the program, compared to $13 million to run the D.C. General family shelter; $8.8 million for emergency rental assistance, which gives low-income residents one-time help with rent; and $11.9 million for permanent supportive housing for families.
D.C. hopes to add 300 families to rapid re-housing, to a total of 1,100. But the problem is finding that many affordable units.
Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the city would hire four new housing navigators to help homeless families find those units. Homeless advocates say it’s a good start.
“I think it is a mistake to think that the homeless system alone can solve all of these issues of poverty,” says Kelly Sweeney McShane, with Community of Hope. “We need more affordable housing. We need more jobs. We need more living wage jobs. We need other services that will help families not fall through the cracks.”