The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program is the single largest housing subsidy program available to low-income households in the country. The program currently provides housing subsidies to 2.1 million households. Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs) are wonderfully designed to ensure that Americans with even the lowest incomes can afford to live independently in privately managed rental housing.
Some low-income households also need supportive services in order to access and remain in housing. A number of federal, state and local government and philanthropic programs are available to help these households with the services they need to lead healthy lives. Together with HCVs, these programs offer local communities the tools needed to create supportive housing.
Yet most of these programs are rarely connected to HCVs. As a result, some people with significant needs slip through the cracks and never get access to or lose one of their only opportunities for subsidized housing.
Why do people who are homeless and/or have special needs have a disproportionately difficult time receiving Housing Choice Vouchers?
- Navigating a multi-layered application process can be challenging for people with special needs and those who are living outside or moving from shelter to shelter, focusing on their day-to-day survival.
- Advertisements for waitlist openings can be missed by someone who is not connected to mainstream media.
- Public Housing Agency (PHA) staffs often have a hard time locating people who are homeless when it is time to update their status or offer them a voucher.
- Some people who are homeless may not have the documentation and identification required to apply.
- Requirements to schedule and keep appointments can be difficult for someone who has limited transportation options and/or is worried about where they will sleep each night.
- Homelessness can lead to arrests for crimes that are directly related to being homeless such as loitering and panhandling. Some PHA screening criteria bar people with histories of arrests and jail stays from the subsidies they need in order to remain stably housed.
What are the barriers people who are homeless and/or have special needs sometimes face when looking for apartments to rent with their vouchers?
People who are experiencing homelessness and those with special needs who are fortunate enough to receive an HCV often face a second set of challenges related to lease-up.
- They may not have an easy way of finding available apartments online or in newspapers. If they do, they have to keep track of these listings while moving from place to place.
- It isn’t always easy for people who are homeless to present as well as they would like to when meeting with landlords. Some may have to carry multiple belongings with them, and some may have limited access to showers and laundry facilities.
- Issues such as poor rental history or past arrests and convictions are likely to prevent some people from passing landlord screenings and background checks.
- Staying in touch with a landlord through the application, interview and inspection processes can be extremely challenging for people without easy access to email and/or phones.
- People with disabilities may lack accessible transportation options.
- People with extremely low incomes can have difficulty paying security deposits and the first month’s rent.
How can PHAs strengthen their Housing Choice Voucher programs while serving people who are homeless and/or who have special needs?
Many PHAs are finding success in responding to the needs of households who are homeless and/or who have special needs by partnering with service providers. These partnerships bolster PHAs’ work in a number of areas.
- Serve people who have some of the greatest needs for rental subsidy.
- Reduce the time spent working through waitlists of unresponsive applicants.
- Increase voucher utilization.
- Improve housing stability for voucher participants.
- Enhance goodwill with landlords.
- Compete for incremental vouchers.
- Enhance positive visibility for contributing to community stability.
What types of Housing Choice Vouchers can serve households who are homeless and/or who have special needs?
Absolutely any HCV can serve households who are formerly homeless and/or who have special needs.
In addition, some vouchers are specifically targeted for special needs populations who might benefit from pairing vouchers with services. Since 2002, all incremental vouchers allocated by Congress have been what are often referred to as “Special Purpose Vouchers.” Some examples include: HUD-VASH (Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing); FUP (Family Unification Program); and NED (vouchers for Non-Elderly persons with Disabilities). To be competitive for special purpose vouchers, PHAs must demonstrate their ability to serve extremely low-income households with special needs. HUD provides specific guidance regarding eligibility for special purpose vouchers, but it is often up to the PHA administering the vouchers to set up local partnerships and protocols. The suggestions for pairing any voucher with supportive services in this section can also boost a PHA’s special purpose voucher programs.
Go to the next section to learn about roles that PHAs can play in addressing homelessness and creating supportive housing. Moving to Work (MTW) status is not needed to implement any of the recommendations in this chapter.
 Please note that HUD has changed a number of the Housing Choice Voucher regulations and procedures as they apply to the HUD-VASH program. These changes are covered in the HUD-VASH operating Requirements, which can be found by clicking on the HUD-VASH link above.