TRENTON, N.J – Two years ago Jenaie Scott had a $20 an hour cleaning job, which was plenty to cover the rent for a modest apartment on the west side of this state’s capital city.
But Scott lost the job in a 2013 downsizing, setting off a downward spiral that led her and 5-year-old son Jyaire into homelessness.
“I had other jobs, but they just didn’t pay enough, and eventually they put an eviction notice on my door,” Scott recalled. She and Jyaire moved in with relatives, then begged for space in the backroom of a church and finally started sleeping in her car.
“I came here crying. I was so upset,” Scott said from the offices of Catholic Charities in Trenton, where she turned for help last year. With her strong history of work, she qualified for a local “rapid rehousing” program, which put her and her son in an apartment within a month.
The program paid her first month’s rent; Scott paid a share of the rent for the next two months and now is paying it all. She got a job at an Amazon warehouse, where she filled orders so fast her bosses made her a full-time coach for other workers. “Without this I don’t know where I’d be,” Scott said of the housing program.
The rapid rehousing strategy is based on the idea that in a majority of cases, a little temporary housing help can prevent people on the edge of homelessness from falling over it. It started with a few local experiments 30 years ago, worked well in pilot programs, and went national in 2009 as part of the federal economic stimulus package. Now used in every state, rapid rehousing is considered to be particularly effective for homeless families because it provides stability for children.
Mercer County (where Trenton is located) and other communities have found the program produces faster results than the previous strategy, which moved the homeless from shelters to transitional housing before giving them a permanent roof over their heads. And it costs less.
The number of homeless families has dropped by 75 percent to 71 families since 2007, before the program started, said Marygrace Billek, Mercer County’s human services director.
Mercer County was able to lower the cost of getting a family into permanent housing from about $32,000 to $16,000 by skipping the intermediate step of transitional housing and moving people directly from homeless shelters to permanent housing. Families had been staying in transitional housing an average of 253 days. “We were actually managing homelessness, not trying to end homelessness,” Billek said.
Only about 6 percent of Mercer County families helped by the program have returned to homelessness, compared with 21 percent under the old program, she said.
One of the first to try the rapid rehousing concept was Minnesota’s Hennepin County, where shelters were filling up in the early 1990s. When every shelter cot and motel bed was taken, the county had no way to help new families.
By placing some families directly into apartments or houses, the county saw its need for homeless shelters drop by 70 percent and nobody was being turned away, according to a 2013 U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness report.
Similar programs evolved in California and Pennsylvania. By 2008, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had taken notice and launched a $25 million pilot demonstration project that included Mercer County and seven other communities in Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington state and Wisconsin. The strategy was expanded to 535 communities as part of the 2009 federal economic stimulus package.