The number one reason people are homeless in the U.S. is the lack of affordable housing. In an ideal world, people of all incomes would be able to afford rental housing in the private market. While that’s not the case in our country, public housing offers an important alternative for 1.2 million households. Many families are able to lead stable, thriving lives because of the foundation that public housing provides them.
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 public housing, these programs offer local communities the tools needed to create supportive housing.
Yet most of these programs are rarely connected to public housing. 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 have a disproportionately difficult time accessing public housing?
- 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.
Why do some households have a difficult time remaining in public housing?
Some public housing tenants have needs that public housing alone cannot help them fully address, some of which can lead to lease violations. As a result, PHAs sometimes find themselves regrettably evicting households that do not have other alternatives. Households who already have subsidized apartments are the saddest group to let fall into homelessness because of the toll that living outside takes on people. Once someone is evicted from public housing they may have an extended waiting period with no other options before they can return to assisted housing. Some PHAs do everything they can to prevent homelessness, but they simply don’t have the time, resources or staff capacity to address all of the challenges in their tenants’ lives.
How can PHAs strengthen their public housing programs while contributing to ending homelessness?
PHAs that establish supportive services themselves or through formal partnerships with service providers find that they can significantly bolster their ability to house families who are experiencing homelessness and keep tenants stably housed. Pairing public housing with services allows PHAs to bolster their programs in a number of ways.
- Reduce the time spent working through unresponsive applicants on waitlists.
- Create a safety net for existing tenants.
- Increase staff presence in public housing buildings.
- Reduce vacancies and increase income.
- Reduce turnover and related costs.
- Reduce the costs associated with evictions.
- Improve morale for staff that want to preserve housing but don’t have the tools to do so.
- Establish an increased on-site staff presence through partners.
- Enhance positive visibility for contributing to community stability.
Whether your PHA decides to improve access to public housing for homeless households, create an eviction prevention program, or both, partnering with service providers can ensure the greatest level of success for your program and for the people you are serving.
Go to the next section to learn about roles that PHAs can play in addressing homelessness. Moving to Work (MTW) status is not needed to implement any of the recommendations in this chapter.