A federal study of homeless families in a dozen cities — including Minneapolis — has concluded that long-term housing vouchers provide a more effective solution to homelessness than temporary or transitional housing programs.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development surveyed more than 2,200 families over an 18-month period, tracking some that used Section 8 vouchers, others that were provided with temporary rental assistance or short-term spots in transitional housing facilities and some that took a more patchwork approach, receiving some services but often extending stays in homeless shelters.
The researchers found that the families that received vouchers with no expiration date were the least likely to end up back in shelters or deal with stress or domestic violence. They were also most likely to remain together as a family unit, keep food on the table and keep children from bouncing around from school to school. The findings, local homeless advocates said, mirror the results they've seen in and around Minneapolis — though they caution that vouchers remain in short supply and recipients face a tight rental market.
"If we had an abundance of federal housing subsidies, we would have a lot fewer homeless people in our community locally," said Mikkel Beckmen, director of Hennepin County's Office to End Homelessness.
In the Twin Cities and across the country, demand for federal housing vouchers far outpaces the supply. The "Housing Choice" vouchers are available to qualifying low-income individuals and families, who put 30 percent of their income toward housing. There's no end date on a voucher; the program keeps running unless program participants move out of the required income restrictions.
The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority last opened its waiting list in 2008. In the 48 hours the list was open, the agency received 14,000 applications. Today, there are still 5,000 families on the waiting list, said Rita Ytzen, the MPHA's senior supervisor of the voucher program.
She said that's because giving families a chance to find more permanent housing — and stay there through the ups and downs of medical problems or other changes — can help provide more momentum than short-term fixes to help people out of poverty.
"I truly believe if you can find a way to assimilate low-income families into communities without the stigma of identifiable low-income housing, that's a perk for both the family and the program," Ytzen said.
While demand on local shelters and assistance programs remains high, there are some signs of improvement. In June, Hennepin County recorded 273 families and 794 single adults in public and private shelters. That's down from 336 families and 794 single adults last year over the same period.
Advocates say it is tough to pinpoint the exact number of homeless people in the area. That's in part because of varying census methods and because many people don't turn up to ask for help, instead relying on the help of family or friends to get by.
Kenza Hadj-Moussa, communications and development director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said vouchers are a useful tool for many families, though additional services are often required for people struggling with more complex problems, like substance abuse or mental illness. She said that while vouchers can be more cost effective than other approaches, it's important for agencies to maintain flexibility in how they serve individual families.
The HUD study found that programs based around providing emergency shelter were the most expensive, at an average of $4,800 per family per month. That's compared to $2,700 for families in transitional housing, $1,160 for vouchers and $880 for participants in the shorter-term "rapid rehousing" program.
HUD is still following the families involved in the survey and intends to release longer-term results in 2017.
Local advocates said they are hopeful the study will draw more attention to the need for more stable housing solutions for families in need.
"I think that the fact that permanent housing placement with a voucher was the most effective and most cost-effective approach is entirely consistent with the approach that we in this community have been championing for quite some time," said Stephen Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing Services.