Sandy’s Long Tail Strikes a New Blow: Homelessness
Life + Money

Sandy’s Long Tail Strikes a New Blow: Homelessness

REUTERS/Tom Mihalek

New York City’s subways have creaked back into action, power is slowly being restored to areas that lost it, and many schools are set to reopen for the first time since Sandy wreaked havoc on much of the Eastern seaboard last week. But for tens of thousands of people left homeless by the storm, life remains a continuing nightmare. And it is likely to be that way for weeks, or longer.

“Housing is really the No. 1 concern,” Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, said at a Sunday afternoon press conference with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “We lost a lot of housing stock here in New Jersey. We don’t even know yet which of the houses are reparable and which are irreparable losses. Those assessments are going on right now, as well as finding temporary housing for individuals who can’t move back to their home right away.”

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday that 30,000 to 40,000 residents were in need of new housing and 20,000 of those could still be homeless in two weeks’ time. A survey by the Department of Homeless Services done before Sandy hit put the city’s homeless population at 46,783, meaning that the storm has nearly doubled the number of people in need of shelter.

“This is going to be a massive, massive housing problem,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday.

The challenge posed by Sandy comes at a time when experts and advocates for the homeless were already concerned that we might see a spike in homelessness – one that many had expected three years ago.

Of the many problems wrought by the Great Recession, a rise in homelessness has surprisingly not been one of them. For this we can thank a little-known part of the 2009 stimulus – the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), which designated $1.5 billion over three years to help keep struggling Americans in their homes. By almost any measure, the program worked. But funding for it came to an end in September, raising fears that homelessness was set to climb.

Last fall, in fact, a report by the Homelessness Research Institute and National Alliance to End Homelessness found that without additional government interventions, homelessness could rise 5 percent by 2013. On a typical night in January 2011, about 636,000 people were homeless in America, according to the most recent official count from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).


HPRP nearly doubled national funding for homelessness prevention, according Ann Marie Oliva, director of homeless programs at HUD. The extra funding enabled HUD to implement two approaches that had never been tried on a large scale – first, to identify at-risk Americans and keep them from becoming homeless in the first place, and second, to get them back in a home as quickly as possible once they did become homeless, a strategy called “rapid re-housing.”

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Localities receiving HPRP funds were required to follow certain federally mandated guidelines – recipients of funds had to have incomes below 50 percent of the area’s median income, for example. But in a departure from previous federal programs, they also had flexibility in structuring the program to best suit their residents’ needs. HPRP allowed for up to 18 months of rental assistance for those in dire need of it. Payments were not made directly to households, but to third-party recipients like landlords or utility companies to prevent misuse of funds. The program also provided assistance with more general real estate needs, from negotiations with landlords to home searches to security deposits.

And it was a success. Despite soaring unemployment – a leading cause of homelessness – the homeless rate remained steady throughout the recession, even ticking down a percent from 2009 to 2011, according to a report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “It seems to have worked really well,” says Nan Roman, president of the group. “They got the money out relatively fast, and the money got spent really fast. There was a lot of demand, as you can imagine.”

Early reports substantiated this. In September of 2011, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced that HPRP had so far prevented or ended homelessness for 1 million people. “We’re incredibly proud of the program,” says HUD’s Oliva. “We had an impact on the lives of a lot of people.” To date, the program has served 564,372 households.


Hundreds of those households are in Santa Clara County, Calif., which along with its county seat, San Jose, received $4.8 million in HPRP funds, according to a report released in June of this year by Focus Strategies, a research and consulting firm dedicated to finding solutions to homelessness. With that money, the local government teamed with two local nonprofits to serve 388 households, at an average cost of $9,575 per household.

RELATED: HUD to Give $1 Billion to Struggling Homeowners

Periodic data collecting and monitoring showed that households stayed in the program on average for between seven and eight months. Upon exiting, at least 83 percent of those entering the program to prevent homelessness remained in permanent housing, and at least 75 percent of those who had lost their home had been permanently rehoused. Just 8 percent of the 388 Santa Clara County households returned to the homeless service system at some point after their HPRP assistance ended.

San Jose’s experience is consistent with the program’s results in other metropolitan areas, which were also required to report their results.


By 2012, many municipalities had used up their funds, and as scheduled, HPRP sunset entirely on September 30. The question now is, was three years long enough?

“I’m concerned,” says Roman. “Homelessness is a lagging indicator. People that get foreclosed on don’t show up the next day in the homeless shelter. It usually takes a couple of years between the crisis and the fallout from it.” In other words, many of those receiving one of the 2.9 million foreclosure filings in 2010 may only now be facing homelessness, just as the stimulus funds to help them prevent that fate are drying up.

The good news is that HPRP left behind a template for other programs, says Oliva. A law called the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act was already in the works before HPRP, and passed just months after the stimulus program. HEARTH’s goals were to consolidate HUD's competitive grant programs, create a Rural Housing Stability Assistance Program, update definitions of homelessness and chronic homelessness, increase prevention resources, and better measure performance of its programs.

Congress provided $1.9 billion to fund the Act’s programs in both 2011 and 2012. Within HEARTH, the Emergency Solutions Grants Program (ESG), which launched last year, could prove comparable to HPRP. The program received $250 million in both 2011 and 2012 to provide grants to state and local governments in their effort to quickly help families who have lost housing or are in danger of losing it. The program’s funding is renewed on a yearly basis as part of the federal budget.

The flexibility of HPRP on the local level produced new ideas, and an opportunity to test them in advance of ESG’s full implementation – the program is currently operating under interim regulations. It also encouraged local governments to increase efficiencies, the most successful of which can also be adopted nationally. “[HPRP] created a lot of collaboration [on the local level] that we had not seen before, which I think is going to continue on as we implement our new ESG program,” says Oliva. “We can continue to learn from what worked in communities and what didn’t work in communities [with HPRP].”

Still, with only a little more than half the funding of HPRP, it remains to be seen whether ESG will prove as effective at keeping Americans in their homes.