Nevertheless, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) continue to promote rapid rehousing as a key national strategy to end family homelessness because of two main reasons: bottom line and ideology. Rapid rehousing is the least costly housing option, and many homeless advocates believe that family homelessness is primarily a housing affordability issue.
HUD’s preference for rapid rehousing has affected other programs. While federal funds for rapid rehousing have increased more than tenfold, from $13 million in 2012 to $198 million in 2015, funds for transitional housing decreased from $417 million in 2012 to $172 million in 2015.
Transitional housing, though, is what Pankey says helped get her back on her feet. At her rehab program, a counselor recommended she try a 1,000-day transitional housing program for homeless families in North County San Diego. There, for the first time in her life, people held Pankey accountable for her actions and encouraged her every step of the way. During 75 hours of coaching, three years of intensive job-readiness and life skills classes, and 160 support group meetings, Pankey learned how to parent, manage money, be a good employee, and serve others.
Today Pankey, 37, is eight years sober. She works as a manager at the program’s aquaponics farm, pays her rent and taxes, and is studying to become a radiation therapist. CPS returned her two daughters: McKenzie is a high-school senior who has a 4.0 GPA, plays the clarinet, and aims for college scholarships, and Maggie is in kindergarten.
Pankey remembers when she used to wake up “hating myself, disgusted with myself.” She felt paralyzed by her circumstances and saw herself as a victim: “I was just always like, ‘Give me, give me, give me.’ It was never my fault. I never took responsibility for anything.” When she faced the unbearable pain of possibly losing her kids, and decided to make a change, a program was available to help.
But last year that program, Solutions for Change, lost $600,000 worth of HUD funding because it refused to follow the “Housing First” approach and allow active drug users into its program. The sudden loss of funds forced Solutions to lay off employees and close an intake center, even though more than 300 families are on its waiting list.
‘We’re leaving kids on the streets, and they’ll be tomorrow’s sickest, tomorrow’s generation of chronically homeless adults.’ —Andy Bales
With loss of funding, what happens to families like Pankey’s, who need a safe, drug-free, structured environment before they can attain housing stability and thrive? What happens to families like Patience Merchant and her two kids, who need immediate relief from the streets and need help finding a source of income?
For Merchant, help came through a couple who found her in a back alley and asked her if her kids were hungry. At first Merchant was wary, but her son Kwama yelled, “I want McDonald’s!” So the couple took them out to dinner, paid for a two-night stay at a motel, and gave Merchant information about available shelters and services in LA. Soon afterward, she took public transit to Union Rescue Mission (URM) in downtown LA.
The CEO of that mission, Andy Bales, says it’s not a coincidence that family homelessness has skyrocketed even as LA refocuses its resources on “one size fits all” rapid rehousing and “Housing First” programs. An emergency shelter cannot meet all the needs of the homeless, and in a homeless “epidemic” where people are losing homes faster than the city can house them, more alternative options are needed, not fewer, he says: “There is no reason to have women and children suffering on the streets while we build a few units at a time, thinking we’ll solve homelessness one day. … Meanwhile, we’re leaving kids on the streets, and they’ll be tomorrow’s sickest, tomorrow’s generation of chronically homeless adults.”
URM says it never turns a family away. On any given night, about one-third of the 1,300 people who sleep at URM are families. If the day room is full, URM clears out other rooms to set up cots and lay out blankets for people. Each family has a different story and different needs: One mother of five kids has the mental and social development of a child. Another woman, 23, said she’s never had a real home since she entered the foster system at age 4, and now the streets feel more like home.
During her first night at URM, Merchant lay down on a cot with her two children and couldn’t sleep—all the stress of surviving the streets avalanched on her, and she had to keep reminding herself that she and her children were safe.
It took days to adjust. After two months at the mission, Merchant had gained back the weight she lost and could laugh and joke freely again. Today, Merchant is no longer at URM, and although she’s not yet found permanent housing, she says she has found a job as a janitor and is on a long waiting list for low-income housing. Her kids attend a local school.
The day they arrived at URM, Merchant had made a promise to her son: “Baby, I’ll make sure this is our last stop.” This time, she says, she intends to keep that promise.