Meaningful Programs to Fight Homelessness in Florida

By Robert Ehrlich and Vann Ellison
Florida faces significant challenges of homelessness relative to its large population, but has made measurable progress in recent years in reducing numbers of individuals on the streets. Credit should go to Gov. Rick Scott’s solid economic performance that markedly increased employment levels and to the good people at state and local social services agencies.
But a larger issue looms as the state government’s Council on Homelessness espouses federal “Housing First” doctrine from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) and vouches for its effectiveness statewide–without the data to show whether individuals are making the transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency. Some perceive it as a “best practice” in communities nationwide. In Orlando, top elected officials and key central Florida homeless non-profits champion the program. The Orlando Sentinel even named a local Housing First advocate as its person of the year in 2015. Before southwest Florida gets caught up in the Housing First movement, however, we should examine the facts.
Historically, HUD has experienced difficulty evaluating the effectiveness of its own programs. Just last month, the General Accountability Office issued a report wherein it concludes that the Department lacks an agency-wide policy on performance outcomes. The challenge is most apparent on homelessness efforts, according to the Congressional watchdog organization, which finds the Department possesses limited data upon which to measure its programs.
Housing First, essentially rebranded as “Rapid Re Housing” in 2009, waives work requirements, compliance in drug treatment programs, and sobriety maintenance in an effort to provide homeless individuals with residences as quickly as possible. The program comes with a BIG price tag: HUD’s 2017 budget requests an additional $11 billion in mandatory spending for Rapid Re Housing.
Justification for the spending is thin, as Secretary Julian Castro points to a convoluted 300-page HUD-commissioned report that is unfinished and labeled as an “interim finding”. Yet, the report should not be difficult to complete. The Department has been tracking a large sample of homeless individuals for several years and by now we should know whether they are achieving self-sufficiency. Here, the most telling outcome would be whether people have secured employment as a result of receiving public assistance. Amazingly, however, the report fails to address this vital metric.
Instead, HUD promotes the rapid housing concept and pits that approach against other solutions such as community-led transitional housing. In analyzing the federal government’s findings, the New York-based Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness concludes “definitive answers are nowhere to be found.” The Institute further raises serious questions about the report’s methodology and conclusions. In one example, it characterizes HUD’s crediting of employment and income gains among Rapid Re Housing beneficiaries as mere hypothesis.
If states desire an independent take on alleviating homelessness, they should undertake to monitor unproven federal programs. Unfortunately, Florida has been slow to the job. For example, in its “2016 Annual Report to The Governor And Legislature”, the Council on Homelessness recommends the development of a statewide system to gather data and measure performance outcomes – this from a group that was established fifteen years ago!
Likewise, a Central Florida Commission on Homelessness report last year advocates for rapid housing approaches with little meaningful data to back it up. According to the report, the State of Florida and local communities are just beginning to focus on Rapid Re Housing and Housing First, pointing to apparent success stories in other states. Actually, an initial $12 million in federal Rapid Re Housing funds was awarded to 15 non-profit organizations and county governments statewide in 2009. That amount has since increased to $65 million according to figures from the Florida Department of Children and Families. If there are any results on what this spending accomplished, we would like to see them.
Those of us on the front lines of fighting poverty and homelessness know that individual needs vary. Lack of employment, mental disorders, substance abuse, criminal history, domestic violence and traumatic childhood events are but a sampling of the issues that impact homelessness. Simply providing homes does not make entrenched problems like these go away; rather, experts in transitional housing in communities across Florida have developed case management and service delivery techniques based on individualized needs.
Rapid housing approaches can be effective in certain circumstances but are not a cure for America’s social ills; its advocates would be wise not to over-promise and under-deliver. We simply do not have the data to determine if this approach is a “best practice.” The bottom line: federal and state government housing policy makers must gather output data in a more consistent manner. Only then will we know how to allocate resources in a more targeted manner, based on the needs of each community.
Robert Ehrlich is the former Governor of Maryland. Rev. Vann Ellison is President and CEO of Naples, FL-based St. Matthew’s House.