Aided by an infusion of federal relief funds for housing and other support services, many states and cities are working to provide temporary housing to individuals experiencing or at risk of homelessness to keep them healthy and protected from COVID-19. But with difficult budget decisions ahead, it is important for states to consider the future implications of their short-term, emergency housing measures, and how to maximize government resources in the long-term.
Utilization of Rapid Re-Housing
Now more than ever, when homelessness is associated with high rates of coronavirus infection and renters are increasingly experiencing housing insecurity due to financial instability, housing assistance is critical in order to improve health outcomes and prevent individuals from living on the street or in crowded shelters. One way states are protecting individuals experiencing homelessness is through rapid re-housing, a program that provides individuals with tailored assistance packages and support, including short-term financial assistance, to help them move into housing quickly. Depending on the assistance and funding source, rapid re-housing can last up to two years.
Connecticut’s Department of Housing released guidance for housing providers to help expedite transitions into rapid re-housing. Ohio’s Franklin and Columbus counties also disseminated rapid re-housing guidance, including information on utilizing US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) waivers and providing case management services. Louisiana is using rapid re-housing to move individuals out of temporary hotel units and Rhode Island is prioritizing rapid re-housing for individuals who are currently homeless and awaiting placement in permanent supportive housing.
However, while studies indicate that only 10 percent of individuals in rapid re-housing programs return to homelessness, many do experience rental instability once their rapid re-housing assistance expires. In their guidance to homeless service providers during COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages planning for ways to connect individuals experiencing homelessness with other housing opportunities after they leave temporary housing sites.
HUD’s Emergency Solutions Grant Program (ESG) is a common source of rapid re-housing funding. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) provided HUD with $4 billion in ESG funding, which the department began allocating to states in early April, and enables the expansion of rapid re-housing programs, among other housing initiatives.
In addition to ESG, state and local governments have access to a variety of other funding sources, including billions of dollars in allocations from the CARES act, which are designed to address housing needs during the pandemic. Both the ESG and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding through CARES is being distributed in two waves, with the first wave released based on a FY 2020 allocation formula and the second wave, which has yet to be released, allocated to the highest-risk communities.
Encouraging an Equitable Approach to Resource Distribution
In order to guarantee that federal funding reaches the most at-risk individuals and is used in a cost-effective manner, ensuring the money is allocated equitably is critical. Communities of color and senior citizens are disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and housing instability, and given the link between housing and health, supportive housing and rental assistance can improve health outcomes when used effectively. Because many housing assistance programs are locally run, rather than by the state, many cities are taking the lead and actively seeking ways to equitably allocate federal funding.
- The Chicago Continuum of Care (CoC) COVID-19 plan sets aside housing for individuals at high risk of serious illness due to COVID-19, as well as youth, those living on the street, and families. The Chicago CoC is also reviewing data to ensure that people of color are housed in rates proportional to their make-up of homeless individuals in Chicago, rather than by population numbers alone.
- In Seattle, the mayor promised to provide equitable access to rent assistance and noted that more than 70 percent of the rent support applications the city received came from people of color. The city is also working to help reduce barriers to housing assistance for seniors and non-English speaking residents.
In addition, HUD recently released a document detailing changes to coordinated entry prioritization for Continuums of Care as they respond to COVID-19. The guidance specifically notes the need to support individuals who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 and housing instability and calls on CoCs to consider the compounding effects of systemic inequities that contribute to high rates of homelessness among people of color when prioritizing housing assistance.
Increased Need for Supportive Services
In addition to using federal funds to support physical housing, states are also finding ways to ensure individuals experiencing homelessness receive other types of support services. Supportive housing combines housing assistance with wraparound services, such as behavioral and mental health services, substance use disorder treatment, and education and employment assistance. In addition to keeping individuals stably housed, supportive housing saves taxpayer money and reduces health care costs. The provision of wraparound services plays a critical role in helping individuals remain housed and healthy.
Given the extent of the public health emergency, there is an urgent need to help people access emergency housing and ensure they are simultaneously receiving critical health and support services. Coordinating case management and support services to ensure medication adherence and access to benefits, such as food stamps and health care coverage, can improve both health and housing outcomes. Some examples of support services that states can and are providing during the pandemic include:
- Connecting individuals living in temporary housing with federal nutrition services.
- Transitioning to telemedicine for substance use disorders treatment.
- Helping individuals released from institutional care, especially prisons, create a housing plan to avoid living on the street or in congregant areas, such as shelters.
- Utilizing HUD’s Continuum of Care Program to purchase cell phones and wireless plans in order to help individuals in shelters receive needed support services telephonically.
As states work to provide housing and supportive services to those in need, many questions and challenges arise:
- How can states optimally leverage and coordinate federal funds?
- How can states ensure that both newly homeless and chronically homeless individuals can access housing and supportive services in the future, after immediate funding and other resources expire?
With more people turning to rapid re-housing during COVID-19, state officials acknowledge that many individuals will require support not only during their transition into housing, but also after their short-term assistance expires, when they may need to transition to more permanent rental resources. Given the unprecedented loss in revenues to state coffers, most states anticipate deep budget cuts, which will make ensuring the sustainability of housing assistance even more difficult. As more individuals move into temporary housing, it will be critical for states to coordinate across health and housing agencies to maximize resources, housing stability, and positive health outcomes. Through its Health and Housing Institute, the National Academy for State Health Policy will continue to monitor and support states during this pandemic and beyond.