Spending on homeless questioned

Study says too much money may be allocated to those with less serious needs

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In 2005, when a dispute with a landlord and unpaid utility bills left his five-member family on the brink of homelessness, Melahn Chaneyfield turned for help to a nonprofit agency, Bridge to Independence.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Sandra and Melahn Chaneyfield with children, from left, Elijah Johnson, 13; Tatiana Chaneyfield, 6; and Kenez Singleton, 10.
Click photo for larger image.

The agency, based in Braddock, offered the family a rent-subsidized apartment for up to two years, plus financial counseling and other services. Since Mr. Chaneyfield moved in with his wife, Sandra, and three children ages 6 to 13, the couple's finances have improved so much that they plan to buy their first home.

Theirs is a shining success story, but researchers are concerned that people with even worse problems may not be getting the help they need.

The Chaneyfields fit the profile of those who use the greatest share of temporary housing resources for homeless families, according to a recent study that could have profound implications for how those funds are spent in the future.

Preliminary findings suggest that in some ways, families using the most resources have less serious problems, said Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor and one of the study's investigators. The Chaneyfield family, for example, has not had inpatient care for mental illness or substance abuse or had a child removed from the home. And both adults are working.

"Ironically, we may be spending more money on higher functioning families and less money on more needy families," said Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Mr. Mangano said that if the preliminary findings are confirmed, "obviously, we'll have to look at how we're literally spending hundreds of millions of dollars."

Overall, the federal government spends about $4 billion annually on homeless individuals and families, he said, and at least that much is spent by state and local governments and private groups. About half the nation's homeless population lives in families, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

As efforts to address family homelessness gained momentum in the 1980s, emergency shelters were an early response, Mr. Mangano said. Transitional housing, another type of temporary housing that typically allows two-year stays, also was developed.

While those efforts were well-intentioned, they often were not based on research, he said.

More recently, studies have suggested that even the most vulnerable homeless people can be placed directly in permanent housing, Mr. Mangano said. And the latest findings suggest that too many temporary housing resources may be targeted to families with less serious problems.

Mr. Mangano acknowledged that some of those families might have more trouble overcoming their problems if they receive less help.

"Even though we have grave concerns about all homeless households, the reality is that we have limited resources," he said. "We want to make sure they are invested in those most in need."

Dr. Culhane said the preliminary findings, which have not been published, are based on a study in Massachusetts and in New York City, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. He agreed to discuss only the Massachusetts findings in detail, saying they were presented at a conference in October. But findings from the three cities were consistent with the Massachusetts results, he said.

He and Stephen Metraux of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia analyzed data from a three-month period in 2003 for about 600 Massachusetts families admitted for the first time to temporary housing programs, including shelters and transitional housing.

Researchers then tracked case histories for two years and used other data to assess whether family members had inpatient mental health or substance abuse treatment, or had a child removed from the home by the child welfare system.

The study found that most families left the temporary housing system relatively quickly and did not return. Other families, however, came back repeatedly or stayed for long periods.

Researchers said the short-term clients made up about 75 percent of homeless families served. Their stays cost $11,550, on average, and they used about 45 percent of the temporary housing system's resources.

Another 5 to 8 percent of families had repeated stays. Those families -- the episodic group -- were most likely to have had inpatient mental health or substance abuse treatment or a child placed in protective custody. Their temporary housing stays cost an average of $21,450, but the group used less than 10 percent of the housing system's resources.

The remaining families, long-term residents who made up about 20 percent of the total, were the most costly of the three groups. They had the least intensive mental health, substance abuse or child welfare service histories. Their average stays cost $48,440, and they used about half the housing system's resources. Families in the group also were the most likely to have jobs.

The findings suggest a major share of temporary housing resources are directed to families with the "fewest barriers to exiting homelessness," Dr. Culhane said.

More should be done to help families with more serious problems, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The findings are in some ways the opposite of those reached by an influential 1998 study of homeless individuals. That study, by Randall Kuhn and Dr. Culhane, found that individuals with the longest shelter stays tended to have higher levels of medical, mental health or substance abuse problems. The findings influenced an effort to develop 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness in communities around the nation.

Temporary housing programs for homeless individuals tend to be less structured and have fewer rules than programs for homeless families, Dr. Culhane said.

Families with less serious problems may have the longest stays in part because they are better able to comply with program requirements, he said.

But some families may not need all the case management or other services available in temporary housing programs, he said. They might be helped effectively, and at less cost, through rent subsidies that either prevent them from becoming homeless or move them more quickly out of temporary housing.

Locally, more than 700 shelter or transitional housing beds are available for homeless families, along with more than 400 beds in permanent housing linked to counseling or other social services.

Family Focus, the transitional housing program that benefits the Chaneyfields, helped the family escape potential health problems posed by a greenish black mold that developed on the walls and under the carpet at their former apartment in Forest Hills, Mrs. Chaneyfield said.

The landlord's efforts to correct the problem failed, yet he pressed them for the rent, and they fell behind in paying their utility bills, she said.

Family Focus not only improved her family's living conditions, she said, but also gave her the confidence to complete employment assistance and training programs that helped her land a job at an Oakland day-care center, where she is an assistant group supervisor. Her husband is a counselor for a youth program.

Deana Evanovich-Nell, executive director of Bridge to Independence, questioned whether a housing subsidy alone would be enough for families like the Chaneyfields to succeed. Counseling and other services available through Family Focus help participants "get over the hump," she said.

Mr. Chaneyfield said the assistance his wife received in getting a job has been especially helpful.

"Without the program," he said, "I don't think we'd be where we're at."

Joe Fahy can be reached at jfahy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.


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