Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Making Connections: Economic Opportunities and the Pathway to Ending Family Homelessness

July 16, 2014

Although these days I am fortunate enough to work in the comfortable environment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, my conversations with people who experience homelessness leave me wondering what I would prioritize for myself and my family in the event we were to become homeless. Stable housing would be first on my list, but without a permanent rent subsidy (and such subsidies are available to less than one-quarter of the families that could benefit from them), I would quickly start to worry about how I would pay the rent. Which means I’d also want a job that delivered an adequate paycheck, or at least the promise of a pathway towards family-wage employment.

Happily, rapid re-housing has—since the recession of 2008—emerged as one of the most promising approaches to ending family homelessness. This approach prioritizes moving a homeless family into permanent housing as quickly as possible, providing assistance with housing identification, short-term rent and move-in assistance, and tailored case management and supportive services. In many communities, rapid re-housing has been able to make use of the private rental market, and successful landlord recruitment has been an important part of this success. 

Built on the premise of each family’s strengths and resiliency—rather than focusing solely on issues that may have led to their homelessness—rapid re-housing provides, by definition, comparatively short-term rental assistance, often limited to 6-24 months. Not surprisingly, at the end of the rent subsidy, families are often faced with the dilemma of rent levels that may exceed what they can comfortably afford based on their incomes.

Although there are a number of tools that can help on this front, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, helping families increase real earnings has become one of the essential components of our local efforts. This isn’t easy, as it requires reaching across systems to build partnerships between the homelessness/housing and workforce development/employment sectors. With a limited history of collaboration, it has taken some time to develop effective, scalable relationships across these systems.

One of the most successful efforts has been the Housing and Employment Navigator Model. Building Changes pioneered the model, which works in partnership with local workforce development programs and housing and homeless providers. The navigator model has, in new and innovative ways, combined housing and employment services for homeless families that have been rapidly re-housed in Washington state. The program offers assistance in obtaining the job training, education and employment needed to establish career paths towards economic stability, while also preventing returns to homelessness. 

These initial efforts met with so much success that WorkForce Central has been awarded an additional $6 million in federal Department of Labor Innovation Funds to build on the lessons learned and significantly expand the navigator program

Washington state is not alone in tackling this issue. As a recent report from Reaching Home documented, a number of communities across the U.S. are taking bold and innovative steps to link economic security and housing stability as critical keys to the work of ending homelessness. 

For example:

  • In Connecticut, CTWorks East career centers connect one-stop workforce centers with the local rapid re-housing program.
  • In Mercer County, New Jersey, the Family Housing Initiative combines rapid re-housing with services that include working to eliminate barriers to employment that threaten long-term housing stability.
  • In Massachusetts, the Secure Jobs Initiative targets employment training and job placements for families in rapid re-housing and rental voucher programs. Sponsored by the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Foundation, the program has engaged regional partnerships that increased the connections between the homeless and workforce development systems, with access to childcare for parents who are entering the workforce.

Although they are relatively new initiatives, these programs have documented promising results, including increased earned family income, increased rates of job retention, and connections to employment with career pathway potentials in fields such as health care, manufacturing, construction, retail, social services, hotels and hospitality, security, property management, and financial services.

Despite the fact that these efforts have, for the most part, been localized initiatives that required buy-in from programs and funders in limited geographies, I’m optimistic that the lessons learned in these communities can help to inform a new priority for closer collaboration among agencies at the federal level, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Labor.

If I found myself actually walking in the shoes of the homeless families that are at the center of our current efforts, I’d want to be able to secure exactly the things that rapid re-housing and employment programs are trying to produce today: A safe, stable place to call home, and a job that pays me enough to pay the rent, feed my family, and perhaps even enjoy dinner out and a movie on a Saturday night.

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