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Assessing the Role of Public Housing Agencies in Addressing Homelessness

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Assessing the Role of Public Housing Agencies in Addressing Homelessness

Cover image of the Study of PHAs' Efforts to Serve People Experiencing Homelessness Although the number of people in the United States who experienced homelessness declined by more than 8 percent between 2007 and 2013, homelessness remains a pressing problem. As many as 1.5 million people stay in emergency shelters or transitional housing at some time over the course of a year — a number that does not include those who require but do not receive such assistance. HUD is committed to addressing homelessness and working toward the goals outlined in the Obama administration’s 2010 plan Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.

A recent study commissioned by HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research investigates how public housing agencies (PHAs) contribute to efforts to prevent and end homelessness — particularly through the administration of their Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) and public housing programs. The research, “Study of PHAs’ Efforts to Serve People Experiencing Homelessness,” consisted of a web-based survey of the nearly 4,000 local PHAs (with an 80% response rate) and a follow-up telephone survey of 120 selected PHAs. The surveys explore the extent to which PHAs make explicit efforts to target housing assistance to homeless households, the barriers PHAs face when assisting people experiencing homelessness, how PHAs interact with community partners, and how HUD can help PHAs enhance their efforts to address homelessness.

Key Findings

The study revealed, overall, that 24 percent of PHAs, controlling 53 percent of all assisted housing units, make an explicit effort to target housing assistance to homeless households. For the purposes of this study, these efforts were described in three separate categories: 1) general preferences, which enable the PHA to purposefully order their waiting list to ensure that housing resources reach specified populations ahead of those who may also be eligible for housing assistance, 2) limited preferences, which function similar to a general preference, but cap the number of vouchers or units that may be allocated to a specified population, and 3) modification of screening, which refers to changes in screening procedures or other policies that may serve as barriers to homeless households seeking to access or utilize housing assistance.

Additional key findings concern which PHA characteristics are associated with targeted PHA efforts to serve homeless households.

  • PHAs are more likely to make an effort to serve homeless households if the PHAs are large (administering 5,000 or more units), are located in metropolitan areas or areas with large numbers of people experiencing homelessness, have statewide jurisdictions, or participate in other local efforts to address homelessness, such as Continuums of Care (CoCs) — which are regional entities established to identify and coordinate emergency, transitional, and permanent housing services for people experiencing homelessness.
  • PHA administration of HUD McKinney-Vento homeless assistance programs — Supportive Housing Program, Shelter Plus Care program, and Section 8 SRO Moderate Rehabilitation program — was found to have a statistically significant effect on the likelihood that a PHA would use a strong general preference. More than half of PHAs that administer these programs make a special effort to serve people experiencing homelessness.
  • PHAs that administer special-purpose vouchers (SPVs) for difficult-to-house groups such as nonelderly disabled persons are more likely to make efforts to serve people experiencing homelessness; 45 percent of PHAs administering SPVs make some effort to serve people experiencing homelessness compared with 20 percent of those that do not administer SPVs.
  • Only 17 percent of PHAs that do not administer HUD programs targeted at homeless households make efforts to serve persons experiencing homelessness in their HCV and public housing programs.
  • Small PHAs are less likely than larger ones to have established a limited preference for homeless households or modified screening processes, but they are just as likely as larger PHAs to use general preferences targeted to homeless households.
  • It is more common for a limited preference for homeless households to be established within both tenant-based and project-based voucher programs than public housing programs.

Other factors, such as the culture of a PHA or the priorities of an executive director, may also influence a PHA’s engagement with homeless households, but these factors are difficult to measure. In addition, various real or perceived barriers may dissuade PHAs from engaging in efforts to serve people experiencing homelessness. The most common barrier cited by PHAs is concern that homeless applicants may be removed from the waiting list because they lack a fixed address and cannot be found when the PHA is ready to make an offer of assistance. Other barriers cited by PHAs include homeless households lacking the necessary eligibility documentation, as well as needing housing search or landlord assistance when using HCVs.

PHAs are serving formerly homeless households through numerous approaches. Many PHAs forge relationships with local public and nonprofit community organizations to identify and help persons experiencing homelessness. These community partners may refer households to the PHA; help households prepare documentation to demonstrate eligibility for housing assistance; or offer support services such as case management, food assistance, or employment and vocational training.

How HUD Can Encourage Further PHA Efforts

These research findings provide a basis for understanding which types of PHAs are currently strongly engaged in addressing homelessness, and helps shed light on potential opportunities for PHAs that have previously not made special efforts to serve homeless households. Based on their findings, the researchers recommend that HUD encourage large PHAs to establish a limited preference for homeless households, and work with their local CoC on the target population to which the limited preference should be directed, and encourage smaller PHAs to establish a general preference for homeless households. The researchers suggest that PHAs of all sizes would benefit from training to better understand and implement recent HUD guidelines (PIH Notice 2013–15 (HA)) that clarify definitions of homelessness and permissible preference policies. HUD could also encourage PHAs to learn from one another and to partner with local groups that serve people experiencing homelessness, especially CoCs.

This study provides a point-in-time snapshot of PHA efforts to serve people experiencing homelessness that can serve as a baseline from which to measure future change. The findings should guide HUD in promoting best practices and advocating for support as the Department continues to help PHAs in their work to end homelessness in their local community.