AROUND 554,000 PEOPLE live on the streets in the United States, according to HUD’s 2017 annual assessment. That’s an undercount, though: It doesn’t include some homeless, such as those sheltering in their cars.
Homelessness is nothing new, but the scale of mass homelessness today has both the private and public sector scrambling to find solutions. Front-running strategies include the government’s Housing First approach, an increasingly trendy “community first” strategy, and “transformation first” programs like Solutions.
Housing First advocates believe housing alone solves homelessness. They scrap anything that might deter individuals from entering a program—like drug tests or work requirements. The idea is simply to get people off the streets and into a subsidized apartment of their own, and from there they can deal with any issues of addiction, unemployment, mental illness, or family brokenness. Originally, Housing First was meant for chronically homeless individuals, but eventually it became a one-size-fits-all approach.
It was in the mid-2000s that the government began throwing its weight behind this method, starting under the George W. Bush administration. Housing First ramped up under the Obama administration when Congress’ stimulus package included a cool $1.5 billion for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. Rapid rehousing, an iteration of Housing First, puts families into a subsidized apartment and gives them six months or a little longer to find a way to afford the apartment on their own.
A 2016 HUD report evaluating the new rapid rehousing approach deemed it “highly successful,” and HUD began to defund other approaches. Organizations battling homelessness could hitch onto HUD’s Housing First train or lose their funding.
Many complied. Megison said the federal government and nonprofits may have the right intent, “but what if the design is the wrong design?”
The design is indeed proving flawed. A 2017 D.C. study by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless found that 45 percent of families who participated in rapid rehousing were evicted or sued for eviction in 2016. Only 10 percent of families increased their income over a year, and only 2 out of 5 families were able to maintain their housing without federal aid. A similar look at New York in 2013 found the number of families returning to the streets and to shelters actually rose from 20 percent to over 50 percent after the push for rapid rehousing from 2005-2011.
Solutions for Change represents a transformation first approach. (WORLD will review a third approach, community first, in a future issue.) Advocates for this approach believe subsidies alone merely put a Band-Aid on deep, internal issues such as poverty, addiction, domestic violence, or broken families. “We don’t want to be symptom chasers,” Megison said. “Just putting a person behind a door doesn’t do anything to address what got them homeless.”
Transformation first rounds out housing with training, work requirements, and counseling aimed at addressing counterproductive behaviors. So families at Solutions must stay sober and work while going through the 1,000-day program that includes classes on topics like parenting, servant leadership, job training, and managing finances.
Sometimes transformation first organizations are explicitly “Jesus first,” emphasizing the gospel as the key to solving homelessness. Others focus on breaking old habits and establishing new routines. Solutions includes in its recovery steps a “spiritual call to action.” Some come to faith in Christ, but not all residents will become Christians on the road to housing stability.
It may not work for everyone, and Megison’s model only attempts to address homeless families. Solutions says on average, its residents report a tripling of annual incomes, from $7,400 to $21,400, and a decrease by half in dependence on federal aid like food stamps. But the percentage Megison is perhaps the most proud of is graduated parents who were able to reunite with their children—100 percent.