HEARTH Act: Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing

On May 20th, 2009 (exactly 4 months into his term), President Obama signed the HEARTH Act (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) into law. The legislation had the lofty goal of moving all who become newly homeless back into housing within 30 days. It also allows for a person or family who is about to become homeless within 14 days, having no other form of support or assistance at their disposal whereby to avoid eviction, to be helped. Now, almost 2 years later, HUD (the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) is still devising regulations and working on implementing the HEARTH Act.

The impending and imminent publication of those regulations was the reason that NAEH (the National Alliance to End Homelessness) invited dozens of homeless service providers and advocates to an information-gathering meeting at the N Street Village Women's Shelter on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011. Upon publishing the regulations, HUD is mandated by law to allow for public comment. But it is important for all who are affected by the new regs -- the homeless, those living in HUD housing or any public housing, service providers and advocates -- to gain some understanding of the implications of the new regulations before attending the HUD meeting, so that they can ask informed questions.

What is probably most significant about this legislation is HUD's new definition of "HOMELESSNESS" which includes:

-- Those who will be homeless within 14 days without having sufficient familial and/or financial supports

-- Families with children

-- Unaccompanied youth

-- Those who are unstable (having moved at least 3 times within the last 90 days or having a poor employment history).

In lieu of the fact that different government agencies define homelessness differently, agencies that receive HUD funding will be allowed to apply to HUD for special permission to use up to 10% of funding to assist those who are considered homeless by the definitions of any of these other agencies though not by HUD's definition. This should eliminate a lot of bureaucratic red tape.

In an effort to further decrease the ravages of bureaucracy, HUD will allow for the creation of "unified funding agencies" within locales. HUD has historically managed all local contractors directly. They will begin to allow qualifying agencies to apply for status as a unified funding agency. After being designated as such, an agency can then compile a collaborative application to receive funding for all HUD-related projects within their respective locales and will receive 3% of the combined value as their administrative costs. (This 3% is ON TOP OF the administered funds, not SUBTRACTED FROM them.)

HEARTH will differ from other efforts to address homelessness insomuch as it will shift its focus from:

1 -- Programs to Systems
2 -- Activities to Outcomes
3 -- Shelter to Prevention
4 -- Transitioning to Rapid Re-housing

1 -- Whereas the government has been in the habit of devising programs that address widespread problems AFTER they've developed, HEARTH is designed to put systemic safeguards in place that PREVENT large numbers of people from becoming homeless.

2 -- HEARTH avoids giving recipients of housing assistance long lists of things they must do to comply with "program rules" and replaces this with a demand on service providers to produce outcomes.

3 -- HEARTH puts less resources into the creation of shelter and more into homelessness prevention on a case-by-case basis.

4 -- HEARTH moves away from slowly transitioning people into housing and aims to rapidly re-house people.

Another notable difference is that what was formerly known as the Emergency Shelter Grant (ESG) will now be known as the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) and the money will be re-purposed as follows:

The Emergency Shelter Grant was a pre-determined amount of money that cities received in order to provide shelter. It was used to fund shelter renovation, operating costs, services and homeless prevention. It could be used to assist people who earned less than 50% of the area median income (AMI).

The Emergency Solutions Grant will continue to do most of what the emergency Shelter Grant did, but with 2 significant differences. It will only be used to assist those making less than 30% of the AMI and 40% of this funding will eventually be used for HPRP-type programs. (HPRP stands for "Homelessness Prevention and Rapid re-housing Program" and was a temporary program created as part of the "Stimulus Package".) Locales will not be required to decrease the amount of money that they spend on shelter; but, as their annual allotment increases, they will be required to put the additional monies into prevention programs until they meet the 40% requirement.

The outcomes that HEARTH focuses on are termed "community performance measures" and are as three-fold:

1 -- Length of a person's or family's homelessness (as opposed to measuring their progress as they attempt to exit homelessness)

2 -- The number of times a person or family returns to homelessness

3 -- How many people become homeless for the first time.

HEARTH moves away from simply providing more permanent housing (such as HUD housing) and encourages the use of proven strategies for ending and preventing homelessness. Such strategies include the rapid re-housing of families with children. All agencies that receive HUD funding will be required to assist all minors (under the age of 18). HUD is charged with gathering information about and instituting other proven strategies as well.


While, the HEARTH Act sets lofty goals and seems quite ambitious on its face, those of us who've had any experience dealing with federal policies in the past know that such policies, though well-intentioned, don't always meet there goals and often have poorly-designed goals. (This might begin to explain why Congress is presently debating over whether or not to fund the Mckinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, published in 1987.)

One of the major concerns that was raised was the emphasis which HEARTH puts on a "rapid transition to housing". Being that HEARTH puts a great deal of emphasis on performance and results, it is not yet known if Washington, DC and other jurisdictions with similarly designed shelter systems will need to overhaul their shelter systems.

Washington, DC presently runs several different types of shelters. The majority of them are "low-barrier" shelters. In a low-barrier shelter a person is not required to have identification or to give their real name. If they are on the lam or an undocumented worker, law enforcement is not called on them (so long as they don't commit a crime within the shelter). They may come in high or drunk (so long as they don't bring drugs or alcohol into the shelter). Low-barrier shelter is designed to encourage people to come out of the elements so that they don't freeze or fall into traffic while drunk.

However, people are not required by low-barrier shelters to enter into any programs or show that they are doing anything to end their homelessness. This runs contrary to the objectives of HEARTH. Since the "low-barrier" designation was created by DC government and a failure to produce results will adversely affect the District's HUD funding, it stands to reason that the local shelter system might be re-configured.

It was pointed out during the meeting that, when financial trouble strikes, a family stops paying utilities and/or rent first. This is often the beginning of a downward spiral that can lead to them eventually losing everything. It stands to reason that, rather than attempting to end or prevent homelessness, time could be better-spent addressing poverty as a whole.

All too often, those experiencing poverty are sent to numerous agencies for various forms of assistance that address very targeted aspects of a person's life. They must apply for food stamps. Then they must go to a different agency for help paying the rent or utilities. then they may need to apply separately for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). And who knows what else they may need to apply for. Then they might even be expected to look for a job or to attend job-training courses. That said, being poverty becomes a full-time job. And let's not even discuss how much work goes into being homeless.

It was mentioned during the meeting that people need income from employment and/or subsidies in order to exit homelessness,as money problems are at the root of many people's homelessness. This speaks to why some see homelessness as an intractable problem. It is a multi-faceted issue and much of what would need to be done to end homelessness doesn't fall within the purview of the agencies charged with ending homelessness. The agencies that deal with homelessness usually don't deal with people's income. This creates a seemingly irresolvable disconnect.

During the meeting, I gave my spiel about the need to mandate the creation of affordable housing. Though I don't see that happening anytime in the near future, it is an absolute necessity. the lack of affordable housing is the primary reason for homelessness in the united States. and, in my humble opinion, any plan to end homelessness is incomplete without strong legislation that mandates the creation of affordable housing being put in place. Nonetheless, the governments of our nation support the free-market economy and prefer to allow landlords to charge exorbitant rents.

Finally, while I can appreciate the emphasis that HEARTH puts on preventing homelessness, a key form of prevention is overlooked. The system fails to assist most people until AFTER they become homeless. Those who are becoming homeless for the first time don't know where to turn and don't learn what systems are in place to help those in danger of becoming homeless until it's too late. There is no legislation in place that forces landlords to apprise people of their rights or to inform them of agencies that will help them pay the rent. For many people, their first encounter with a housing counselor takes place after they enter shelter. This represents a serious flaw in the system.

That said, I commend the efforts being made by the federal government to end homelessness. How well they'll do remains to be seen. HUD's regulations and the eventual implementation of the HEARTH Act are still in the works. So, stay tuned and be sure to give your input when the regs are issued. Will this latest legislation put a dent in the homeless population? One can only hope.


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