Barriers to Housing First & the Role of Hilda’s Place

While the advantages of Housing First as an approach to helping those who are homeless are well supported by research, many communities cannot fully implement such an approach. That is the case in most of Illinois, particularly on the north side of Chicago and throughout north suburban Cook County. There are several reasons for this difficulty:

Unaffordability: Housing is simply too expensive for most people with low incomes to find a place they can afford quickly:

  • Rent for one year on the North Shore for an apartment costs an average of $1,177 per month or $14,124 per year [1]
  • In order to afford the average apartment and not pay more than 30% of one’s income on housing, a person would need to make about $47,080 a year – $22.63 an hour. 30% is the generally recommended housing-to-income ratio – above this ratio one is determined to be “rent burdened."
  • At 40 hours a week, minimum wage equals monthly gross wages of $1,430, or a full-time salary of $17,160.
  • That means that a minimum wage worker would need to work 2.75 full-time jobs to afford to live in our community.

Insufficient Rental Assistance and Subsidies: Housing programs help people who cannot afford market rate housing by providing housing at lower-than-market rates or by providing rental subsidies. In fact, long-term rental subsidies have proven to be the single most effective way of moving people out of homelessness and into self-sufficiency [2]. However, in Evanston, only about 650 people have Housing Choice Vouchers (commonly known as Section 8) – the federal government’s primary way of providing subsidies [3]. This may sound like a lot, but consider that almost 10,000 people in Evanston earn less than 80% of the area median income (AMI) of $68,292, and almost 4,000 of those earn less than 30% of AMI, or only about $20,500. That means that 4,000 people earn less than $21,000 per year in a city where the average annual rent for a one-bedroom apartment was almost $17,000 [4]. These people cannot afford the housing that is available, and they need our help.

Lack of Participating Landlords: For those who do have subsidies, it can be difficult to find an apartment, because many landlords do not want to rent to low income people or comply with HUD requirements, which are strict and can be burdensome. This further decreases the number of units available to people in need.

Connections works hard to find affordable units for program participants. However, it can take from several weeks to many months to find an appropriate combination of the following components:

  1. An apartment that meets the needs of our homeless program participant (e.g., accessibility, access to public transportation, affordability).
  2. A rental subsidy for which that participant is eligible.
  3. A landlord who will accept that participant and his or her rental subsidy and will comply with the rules related to the subsidy.

One of our challenges at Connections is maintaining contact with people while they are searching for this often elusive combination. Hilda’s Place plays a key role in meeting this challenge.

 

WHERE HILDA'S PLACE FITS IN

At several points in the recent past, Connections considered closing Hilda’s Place, because “transitional shelter” has been found to be less effective than Housing First approaches to helping people to achieve housing stability. This trend has decreased the amount of funding Connections receives from the government for our transitional shelter, Hilda’s Place.

We have also considered various alternatives to Hilda’s Place, including:

  • Replacing it with various forms of “bridge” housing that could provide more private apartments.
  • Eliminating temporary, interim, or bridge housing completely and just focusing on re-housing people into their own apartments.

However, we have decided to keep Hilda’s Place operating for now, to serve as shelter for those for whom housing is not yet available. This is because:

  • Many people who are homeless will not consider a program unless shelter or housing is included. If we do not provide shelter for some, they will seek shelter elsewhere rather than engaging in programming to help them find permanent housing and secure income. Because there are so few shelters available, many will not succeed in their searches and will become more and more lost. With Hilda's Place, we will have a much better chance of engaging this segment of those who are homeless in long-term solutions.
  • The housing process takes a long time, and without shelter, it is more difficult for people to do the work to find housing. Though Connections houses many people right off the street without a shelter stay, others will not have the capacity to be productive in their housing searches while living on the street. With Hilda's Place, they will have a home base from which to manage their daily business and will increase their chances of getting housed faster.
  • People exiting the criminal justice system or who have eviction records have the most difficult time finding housing, and they have almost no chance of succeeding without persistent and comprehensive support. Hilda’s Place will help more of the people who are hardest to house to overcome those barriers.

Hilda’s Place is not an easy place in which to live – it feels crowded, it lacks privacy, it has strict rules and limited hours. Clearly it is not the ideal solution in terms of long-term impact – a shelter program does not provide stability the same way that an apartment of one’s own does. However, given the great disparity in numbers between people who need housing and the affordable housing that’s available in our community, we cannot in good conscience shut down the only resource that provides shelter support for those making good faith efforts to find housing – even if it only shelters 20 people at a time.

 
 

[1] A Strategic Plan Forward to End Homelessness: 2014-2017, pg 7. The Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County

[2] Findings and Implications of the Family Options Study, National Alliance to End Homlessness (July 2015)
[3] 2015-19 Consolidated Plan, pg 45. City of Evanston (March 2015)
[4] Smith, Bill, Median one-bedroom rent drops again in Evanston, (Evanston Now: April 3, 2015)