OPINION: The Homeless Don’t Want A Handout — They Want A Way Out

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Christopher Fay Contributor
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The cold of winter is outside our doors, and so are hundreds of families who are suffering through homelessness this season. Though the holidays are behind us, it is still crucial to take time to give back and consider the best ways to lift up the most vulnerable in our communities.

Current law requires homeless parents with children to be moved out of shelters into “permanent housing.” Known as “rapid rehousing,” this well-intentioned approach places families in homes with rent covered for one year, after which they are expected to have a steady income to keep up with the costs on their own.

Unfortunately, this policy has failed to address the underlying causes of homelessness — perpetuating a deadly cycle of poverty that leaves families on the street.

But there is a better way forward, and many nonprofit organizations are seeing it work every day.

Instead of providing short-term solutions, our leaders need to empower homeless families to leave poverty and homelessness behind for good. Many of the parents those of us at nonprofits serve became homeless after fleeing an abusive situation, such as domestic violence or human trafficking. Others struggle after a medical emergency, family death, or a disability. Most are single mothers.

Experience has shown that a longer-term, two-year investment in families produces much better results than the current policy of rapid rehousing. After moving a family into a home, we partner with them to create a personalized plan of action. Parents work in a job, use a percentage of their income for rent and put money into savings. They receive help with transportation and child care costs and educate parents on a wide-variety of topics, including financial management, credit counseling, vocational skills, parenting, nutrition and English as a second language. The younger children attend educational preschool while the older children learn in after-school programs that include academics, life skills training and community service.

And this model works. Ninety percent of families that enter the program graduate, having gained the tools they need to maintain long-term self-sufficiency. When they leave us, the parents have a job, an affordable home and a newfound confidence. Their debts are paid off, through their own work, and they have savings in the bank. Their children are safe and secure with a solid educational base. And, their success continues — two years after graduation, 95 percent of families are still working and living in their own homes.

The need to embrace this type of all-encompassing model becomes even clearer when we look at how rapid-rehousing programs are working across the country. In Mercer County, New Jersey only 53 percent of rapidly rehoused families remained housed after their rental assistance ended. Here, in Washington, D.C., only two out of every five rapidly-rehoused families maintain their housing after the short-term subsidies end. This means evictions, more damage to their credit and ultimately more homelessness for parents and children alike.

High failure rates of rapid rehousing are not a consequence of homeless families not working toward success. They are the result of ineffective government policies. Most homeless parents don’t want a hand out. They just want a way out.

This year, we should think about the plight homeless families are facing and how we can help them with long-term solutions. One place to start would be embracing a model that gives homeless families the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty.

Christopher Fay is the executive director of Homestretch, an organization dedicated to empowering homeless parents with children to attain permanent housing and self-sufficiency.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.