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Learning To Prevent Homelessness on a Large Scale

Front Cover of Prevention Programs Funded by the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program

In 2009, Congress provided $1.5 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARR) to fund the Homelessness Prevention Fund, later renamed the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP). HPRP was intended to provide financial assistance and supportive services for those who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Using the formula allocation from the Emergency Shelter Grant program, within 30 days of ARRA’s passage HUD had announced allocation of funding to 535 grantees nationwide, including cities, counties, states, and territories. Most grantees then issued subgrants to nonprofit organizations that were responsible for providing direct services. There were no tested models of homelessness prevention, so HUD allowed grantees great flexibility in designing their individual programs. For instance, HUD required that HPRP clients (1) have a household income below 50 percent of the area median income (AMI) and (2) be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless— with no identified housing options and without the financial resources and support network needed to secure or retain housing. Within these constraints, communities were free to target special populations and establish more stringent eligibility criteria.

Homelessness Prevention Study

HUD recently published the Homelessness Prevention Study: Prevention Programs Funded by the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid-Rehousing Program (HPS), an investigation that documents the first two years (from October 2010 to late 2012) of HPRP prevention programs and describes indepth prevention programs implemented in 17 communities. The HPS was a process study that offers researchers, policymakers, and advocates a unique opportunity to learn how HPRP’s substantial increase in prevention resources affected communities’ homelessness assistance systems and to learn about the practical implementation of homelessness prevention. Although the HPS did not evaluate the outcomes of program implementation on clients, its finding are important because the evidence for what works in homelessness prevention — in particular, how to target those most at risk of homelessness — is limited, and because homelessness prevention policy has never before been carried out on the scale of HPRP.

The goal of HPS was to understand how HPRP grantees designed their homelessness prevention programs and how the programs worked in practice, as well as to draw lessons from the HPRP experience for future policy development. The researchers examined how grantees established eligibility, targeting, screening, intake, and assessment procedures. HPS also explored what forms of prevention services HPRP grantees provided to participants, what data HPRP communities collected, and how the data were used. The research team used three methods to conduct the study: an analysis of grantees’ HUD-required Annual Performance Reports from the first two years of HPRP, a survey of a nationally representative sample of grantees and subgrantees, and site visits to 17 HPRP communities.

The study finds that in its first two years HPRP served nearly a million people who were homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless. Nearly half of those served (46%) were in adult-only households, and 51 percent were households with children. Approximately three-fourths of participants received prevention services instead of rapid re-housing. Prevention services were directed at households at risk of becoming homeless because of eviction or other circumstances, whereas rapid re-housing services were directed toward those who were already homeless. The HPS studied prevention programs only. Among the households getting prevention services, rental assistance (62%) was the most common type of financial assistance received, followed by utility payment assistance (21%). Case management was offered to 82 percent of households receiving prevention services. The amount of time households spent in HPRP was significantly shorter than the 18-month maximum allowed by HUD, with only 14 percent participating for more than 180 days. Of those entering HPRP who were deemed at imminent risk of losing housing or unstably housed, 61 percent were judged to be stably housed when they left the program.

Grantees used program funds to expand their existing prevention efforts, change their approaches, or create prevention programs for the first time. The authors report that “[f]actors affecting local design decisions included geography, prior experience with homelessness prevention and data based on it, existing plans and commitments to end homelessness and serve homeless people; no single factor dominated in any of the communities visited for this project.” Because prevention was new for many, service providers learned how to deliver homelessness prevention services as they went along, and some communities changed their approaches midstream. At the beginning of the program, for example, communities planned to devote 59 percent of funds to prevention and 41 percent to rapid re-housing. After two years, the communities had changed their allocations to 70 percent dedicated to prevention and 30 percent to rapid re-housing. A small number of program providers changed their eligibility criteria during the study period, with half lowering their AMI threshold to target households with more intense needs and a greater likelihood of needing shelter.

In addition to HUD’s basic eligibility criteria for participants, HUD program guidelines also suggested that grantees select participants who would become homeless “but for” the assistance and who would have the ability to pay for housing on their own when HPRP funding ended (referred to as the “sustainability” criterion). Grantees had difficulty reconciling the program’s dual goals of ensuring that prevention services produced sustainable benefits and targeting their services to those who would become homeless “but for” such services. Of the 17 site visit communities surveyed, 8 stressed the goal of “but for” by requiring documentation of alternatives to HPRP assistance available to households. Six sites emphasized the sustainability criterion, focusing on a household’s employment history and job prospects.

Thirty-nine percent of grantees surveyed said that their HPRP program did not assist households whose needs were more intensive than the program could support, which the researchers suggest could mean that the households with the most need were screened out of the program.

The HPRP program experience significantly influenced grantees’ plans to coordinate and implement prevention programs in the future. As a result of their participation in HPRP, 71 percent of communities reported becoming more involved with their Continuum of Care, and 61 percent reported becoming more involved in their community’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. Nearly 70 percent of grantees planned to continue homelessness prevention activities after HPRP ended. One valuable lesson learned from the HPRP experience concerned the importance of intake procedures. A highly centralized intake procedure specifically designed to deliver homelessness prevention services appeared to be the most efficient, effective, and fair way to make the appropriate resources accessible to those needing them. HUD has already built on this lesson of HPRP by helping communities develop coordinated entry processes.

Conclusion

HPRP was the first large-scale implementation of homelessness prevention. The HPS provides important evidence for future policy development. The study highlights promising but little used prevention practices, such as housing search and locator services, legal assistance, and credit repair. Building on the HPRP experience, the research team compares several research approaches intended to produce policy relevant knowledge about targeting, program impacts, and cost effectiveness of homelessness prevention, including empirical testing of existing program models, such as shelter diversion, neighborhood-based services, and shallow housing subsidies.