HUD Study Examines Rise In First-Time Homelessness As more families find themselves displaced by the recession, the face of homelessness in America is changing. HUD recently released a study that offers solutions for dealing with the growing problem. Host Michele Martin talks with Secretary Shaun Donovan about the report.
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HUD Study Examines Rise In First-Time Homelessness

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HUD Study Examines Rise In First-Time Homelessness

HUD Study Examines Rise In First-Time Homelessness

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, as this year's Women's History Month comes to a close, we'll talk about the real lives of women in politics with NPR's own Cokie Roberts. We'll ask: How come so few of them seem to get caught up in the scandal compared to their male counterparts? And we'll talk about women as prayer leaders, why that's one glass ceiling that has not yet been broken. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to talk about housing and homelessness. The recession has put many Americans in danger of homelessness, whether by losing a house to foreclosure or falling too far behind in the rent. Many find a place to stay with help from friends or family. But for others, the only option will be homeless shelters.

According to statistics, 1.6 million Americans stayed in a homeless shelter at least once in 2008, the last year when statistics are available. And as the financial crisis took hold, that number may have increased substantially. So, what are communities doing to help the newly homeless? What does it cost and what approaches help people best?

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently explored those questions in a comprehensive study of first-time homelessness. And joining us to talk about all that is Shaun Donovan. He is the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Secretary SHAUN DONOVAN (Department of Housing and Urban Development): It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So, who are the newly homeless?

Sec. DONOVAN: Well, what we're finding more and more, that the traditional image many people may have about homelessness, of a single person maybe that is suffering with long-term substance abuse or even mental illness, that single person on the street is really not the model that we're seeing emerging over the last few years in the economic crisis. More and more it's families. We saw nine percent in increase in family homelessness in just one year in our latest numbers. And perhaps even more interesting, it's in places that we don't typically associate with homelessness where we've seen the biggest growth. A 56 percent increase over one year in rural and suburban family homelessness.

And so we really have to look at new models, and that's one of the reasons why this study is so important. It helps us understand what the real costs are, both of homelessness and the solutions to it.

MARTIN: And, well, one thing that definitely jumps out about the data that the study provides is that the monthly cost of providing shelter for individuals and families was far higher than the cost, the average cost of an apartment in those communities. Now, why is that?

Sec. DONOVAN: We actually have made a lot of progress in this country over the last few years on what we call chronic homelessness, somebody who has spent a long period of time on the streets or cycles in and out of institutions. And while it may be intuitive, we now have very good data to say, you know what, it's much cheaper to solve homelessness than it is to keep putting a Band-Aid on it through shelters and other things. That's kind of the fundamental insight that we've had over the last few years.

And more and more, across party lines, across geographies, we're investing in solving homelessness because exactly what you said, that it is cheaper. The study shows for a family, $3,500 a month in some places to do emergency shelter for a family, when it's one-third the cost of that for an apartment with supportive services that can help that family get back on their feet.

And the reason for it is, if you think about what it costs to treat health problems for somebody that's living in an emergency shelter, they're going to use an emergency room - much more expensive. The costs to their children of not being able to have a stable place to study and go to school, all of those short-term and long-term costs to the family and to society are enormous relative to the cost of solving the problem.

MARTIN: We talked about the fact that sometimes there's a misperception of who the homeless are. And I wonder if you think that that misperception is, in part, the reason that, as the study documents, we seem to be very much invested in these kind of emergency expensive services, as opposed to sort of moving people quickly into more stable forms of housing. Is it in part a philosophical issue?

Sec. DONOVAN: I do think with the economic crisis that there is more of a sense, broadly in the population, that there but for the grace of God go I, that more people know people who've lost their homes and are at risk of homelessness. But I also think historically there has been a sort of, if you want to call it, philosophical concern. Oftentimes and particularly with the single homeless, there has been an approach that, well, we're willing to help you with housing or with services, but you've got to get sober first, or you've got to stop using drugs before we will let you start.

And whatever you think of that morally, what we now know from earlier research is that, in fact, that's the wrong way around if you really want to help people ultimately get back on their feet and back into the mainstream. In that sense, we need to be open to approaches that really say, let's set aside ideology and focus on what works.

MARTIN: Part of what I think you're saying is that morality aside, whatever we may think about people, this is expensive.

Sec. DONOVAN: Absolutely. The data shows, when I say it works, it means that the solution, if you can get somebody into that housing first and then start to attack the problems, is far less expensive than the cost of them being in jails, in emergency rooms, in other situations that the chronically homeless often end up in.

There was a famous article Malcolm Gladwell wrote in - or famous at least among us who work in homelessness and housing - called "Million Dollar Murray," which was about a homeless guy in Reno, Nevada who tragically passed away on the streets. And somebody started to - went back and looked at how much the state of Nevada had spent on Murray over a series of years, and it added up to a million dollars.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Shaun Donovan, he's the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. We're talking about a new study that documents the cost of first-time homelessness. It's believed to be the first comprehensive study that really unpacks these costs. Just following up on that, I wanted to ask, now that you know this, what's the response?

Sec. DONOVAN: The cheapest thing of all and the best thing for those families that are at risk is for them never to become homeless in the first place. And so, being able to provide that funding that allows them to stay where they are or find a new apartment quickly is very important. But a second thing I would say, one of the other key lessons that we have, I think, is if people do fall into emergency shelter, helping them move as quickly as possible is very important in terms of the outcomes.

MARTIN: The executive summary suggests that controlling shelter costs means limiting services to what's absolutely needed to get people back on their feet. Are you at all concerned that part of that message will be received in the same way that the institutionalization message was received two decades ago, which is that people will say, okay, we'll limit shelter services, but there won't be the follow-up conversation that says that there needs to be something beyond that?

Sec. DONOVAN: I think that is a risk. And so one of the things that we're doing is clearly investing more in permanent supportive housing and other longer-term alternatives. A lot of what we're learning, and I think the point that you made goes to this, is that families come in with very different kinds of needs. Some of them are much more significant in terms of the struggles they're having, their children are having, there may be substance abuse, there may be other issues there. Others, it's purely a short-term economic problem. I think a lot of the conclusion that I would take is about getting our targeting right, and that's key to so much of this working well.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, can I just ask one more question about the issue that we've discussed a lot in this program - has been much discussed - which is the foreclosure crisis. Much of the conversation around trying to stop the hemorrhaging in the foreclosure rate has been directed at the Treasury Department and people who are running the stimulus programs. And yet, the ongoing criticism here is that this administration has announced a number of initiatives to try to get ahead of the crisis. The foreclosure rate is slowing, but it's still very high. Obviously a lot of this has to do with job loss. People just don't have the jobs. They don't have the money.

But the ongoing question is, too little too late? We're just still behind the wave, not in front of the wave. What would you say to people who say, where's the real intervention? These programs are continuing to be mainly voluntary for the lenders, theyre not required to rewrite the terms of these mortgages. And even if they say that they are, the actual, you know, work on the ground is at a far slower pace than the PR would suggest that it is.

Sec. DONOVAN: This is an issue where we actually have made significant progress over the last year. The fact that we did see foreclosure start to come down is a significant accomplishment. If you think about the fact that there are a million families benefiting with about $500 a month in lower payments as a result of just our modification program, and then you add on top of that about four million homeowners who are able to refinance, that's $7 billion a year of savings on an annual basis for those families.

The fact that housing prices didn't take the big drop that people thought -they basically stabilized. But what we also said, and we announced some significant new steps last week, is that we need to continue to do more. That the economic crisis in many ways was bigger than many people expected and that we have continued as the problem has evolved from one of bad mortgages, more and more to unemployment and to negative equity, that we are continuing to take new steps.

Am I satisfied? No. Are we going to take further steps? Absolutely. But there are a large number of families who have benefited substantially. In the end, we're not going to be able to help everyone because there are people who bought more house than they could afford. There are people who, frankly, were irresponsible in using their houses almost like ATM machines.

And so I don't think it's responsible for us, and the president has said this, to have a set of policies that are going to try to stop every single foreclosure. But we can get to a significant number of them. We have already done a great deal and there is more that we can do and we're doing that.

MARTIN: I guess overall I'd be interested in, what's the goal? I mean, one of the points that I think some people would make is, do we dream big enough anymore? I mean, do we talk about, like, ending poverty in our lifetimes anymore? Are you going to talk about ending homelessness in our lifetimes? Is it going to be that big? Or is it all about...

Sec. DONOVAN: Absolutely. And for too long, we took an approach that was a Band-Aid. But over the last four years, we've actually reduced chronic homelessness in this country by 30 percent. And we've done it because of studies like this. And so, you will see very aggressive strategies about ending veterans' homelessness, about finishing the fight on chronic homelessness, but also about making real progress in this newer problem that we're seeing from the economic crisis around family homelessness as well.

And I believe, given what we've accomplished and what we now know, the technology, if you will, that we brought to this problem with permanent supportive housing and other tools, that we have a real chance of ending homelessness.

MARTIN: Well, we hope this will be the first conversation and not the last.

Sec. DONOVAN: Thank you so much, it's great to be with you.

MARTIN: Shaun Donovan is the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much again.

Sec. DONOVAN: Thank you.

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