Podcast: Homelessness and Rental Assistance in the Recession

December 15, 2009

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In this podcast, we will discuss how expanding federal rental assistance can help fight homelessness. I’m Keri Fulton and we are joined by the Center’s Senior Policy Analyst for Housing, Doug Rice.

1. Doug, with the holidays approaching, people turn their attention to those in need. During the recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s, as well as the 2001 recession, the number of Americans living in poverty has risen markedly. How has the current recession affected homelessness?

A: Well, even before the economic downturn began in late 2007, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that 1.6 million people, including 340 thousand children, were homeless and living in emergency shelters or transitional housing. Many more adults and children were living on the street, in shelters for victims of domestic violence, or temporarily in the homes of friends and family. With unemployment rising as a result of the recession, homelessness is also rising, especially among families with children.

2. You mentioned that around 340,000 children are homeless. How are children affected by being homeless?

A: Housing instability and homelessness can have long-term impacts on children. Studies have found, for example, that they lower academic performance, increase the chances of a child repeating a grade, and reduce high school completion rates.

3. What can be done to help fight homelessness?

A: Rental assistance, such as Housing Choice vouchers, is effective at preventing homelessness and in helping homeless families move out of shelters and into stable housing. About 2 million low-income families now use vouchers to help pay for housing in the private market. These vouchers are flexible, cost-effective, and make rental housing affordable even for families with very low incomes. If funding is available, new vouchers can be issued and used quickly to address rental housing needs when homelessness is rising.

4. Is more rental assistance needed?

A: Yes, to alleviate the current increase in homelessness and reduce homelessness over the longer term, the federal government should expand rental assistance in two ways.

First, Congress should immediately provide an additional $1 billion for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. This program, which was created as part of this year’s economic recovery law, provides temporary rental assistance to families who are homeless or at risk of losing their housing, and it also covers other costs such as security deposits. Due to the depth of the current recession, the funds originally provided are likely to fall far short of what is needed to address the spike in homelessness.

Second, Congress should fund 200,000 new housing choice vouchers next year to begin to tackle the large and persistent problem of homelessness that existed even before the current recession.

5. Other than helping low-income families find affordable housing are there any other reasons for the federal government to provide more money for vouchers?

A: Actually, providing rental assistance to low-income families can also help the economy. One of the most cost-effective ways to stimulate economic growth and to create or preserve jobs is to target financial assistance — such as Food Stamps, unemployment benefits, and rental assistance — on hard-pressed families who are likely to use it immediately to pay for essentials such as food, transportation, medical care, and housing.

Thank you for joining me, Doug. For more information on how expanding federal rental assistance can help fight homelessness, please visit CenterOnBudget.org

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