Keeping People Housed: Homelessness Prevention Strategies to Bridge Emergencies
Emphasizing existing pre-COVID-19 homelessness prevention strategies may assist individuals and families in remaining housed during and after the pandemic. Many of these strategies are financial assistance programs. This blog post identifies root cause contributors to homelessness and details a variety of prevention strategies for local governments.
Homelessness is described in the policy realm as a ‘wicked’ problem — multifaceted, complex, and dynamic. The treatment for such issues is often to address the symptoms rather than the root causes. There are three main root-cause contributors to the persistence of homelessness:
- Housing availability,
- Housing affordability, and
- The rate at which wages rise, stagnate, or fall for the bottom 20% of wage-earners.
Any one of these factors can contribute to an individual or family losing their housing and that potential loss of housing increases when housed people experience more than one factor. Further information is included in the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s July 2020 report on homelessness and data collection.
COVID-19’s impact on jobs and housing almost guarantees an increase in homelessness as rental eviction moratoriums are lifted (October 15, 2020 at the time of this writing), evictions increase, and employment continues to be precarious. Washington’s employment has shrunk 12% since February and 17% of renters in the state reported missing their July rent payment. The use of basic food assistance programs — another indicator of how Washingtonians are doing — has increased 15% since the pandemic began.
How are Washington cities faring, and how might that impact residents?
In a recent survey conducted by the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), 83% of 134 responding cities reported imposing COVID-19-specific policies. Those related to homelessness prevention included:
- Expanded funding for health and housing services grant programs;
- Suspended late fees and/or shut offs for utilities and use of payment plans;
- Moratorium on rental evictions; and
- Use of librarians/library staff to help people apply for grants or aid.
While some relief and assistance for renters from COVID-related sources is available, it’s limited in distribution, amount, and duration. In many cases, the temporary measures of eviction moratoriums may delay but not prevent home evictions. As cities across the state project revenue losses through 2020 and 2021, funding for assistance and food programs could be cut.
Source: Association of Washington Cities
The AWC survey revealed that 90% of responding cities project a revenue loss. For fiscal year 2020, 55% of cities expect the budgetary impact to be between 5-15%, and the remaining 34% project a drop of more than 15%. Cities’ 2021 budget predictions shift a bit, with only 14% predicting budget reductions of more than 15%. AWC is sending cities a second survey this month (September 2020), which will update the information received in the May-June 2020 survey cited in this article.
Emphasizing existing pre-COVID-19 homelessness prevention strategies may assist individuals and families in remaining housed during and after the pandemic. Many of these strategies are financial assistance programs; some simply involve curating useful information for residents.
Offering centralized information sources
Finding assistance programs and services takes time and resources and becomes more difficult when people are under stress or in crisis. Having a collection of resource contacts available for people in paper form and on the web is a valuable, low-cost way local governments can give assistance. Oftentimes, a ready-made collection of resources has already been put together by another entity, such as a county or state agency.
The Washington State Department of Commerce has a master list of Coordinated Entry Programs by County. These programs are for people who may become, or already are, homeless. The list includes the agency’s name and focus, address, phone, hours of operation, and website links.
Here are some city-based examples of centralized information sources:
- Issaquah's Resources webpage includes links to community support, education and job skills, food and shelter, physical and behavioral health, and safety.
- Burien's Community Court Resource Center is open for two hours a week and offers a schedule of regular and rotating services providers, from immigrant/refugee services to veterans’ affairs.
Here are some county-based examples of centralized information sources:
- Island County's Human Services webpage has information that includes housing assistance, veterans’ services, and behavioral health.
- Benton County’s Community Resource Guide is a 38-page reference document that covers employment training, financial assistance, health service, housing assistance, and other community-based programs.
Accessing statewide financial and other assistance programs
The federal program Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides energy assistance for low-income households. LIHEAP energy assistance grants are paid to the provider that, in turn, distributes funds to eligible applicants.
Utility rate reductions and emergency assistance are addressed in this blog, written when the federal government was shut down in 2019.
General assistance and resources can be accessed by anyone statewide by dialing 211 or by visiting the 211 website.
The Washington Fund Directory lists all available grants for local government programs, including those for housing, economic development, and social services.
Addressing additional factors
There are additional factors that may contribute to a person losing their housing, including domestic violence, a medical emergency, or family issues. Additional resources include legal mediation, specialized shelters and programs, and general crisis assistance.
Landlord-tenant mediation: Once the eviction moratorium is lifted statewide, landlord-tenant mediation may be necessary. The Landlord-Tenant Act (RCW 59.18) has remedies and procedures to resolve most landlord-tenant issues. Mediation of disputes by an independent third party (RCW 59.18.315) is an option both parties can agree to, and it is free of charge. Dispute Resolution Centers serve this purpose and operate in all counties. There are also statewide organizations like the Tenants Union of Washington State that can help tenants connect with legal services.
Domestic violence emergency shelter programs: The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) has a list of domestic violence, sexual violence, and crisis center emergency shelter programs and advocacy services throughout the state.
Crisis assistance for residents: Free local and regional crisis phone lines are available for all Washington residents on the Washington State Health Care Authority website. Additionally, DSHS hosts a list of emergency and crisis programs to connect with people.
The cost of homelessness in human and fiscal terms is high. Preventing homelessness by helping people retain their housing benefits individuals, families, and communities in the short and long term. The current pandemic is likely to have negative outcomes for many people across the state who are currently housed. Being aware of what programs are out there and connecting community members with resources can help reduce the number of people evicted. Contact MRSC for sample documents or policies on rental assistance, utility assistance, or other programs your city or town may be considering.
Thanks and credit to Christian Belcher and Maggie Douglas at AWC for overseeing the COVID-19 survey referenced in this blog.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.