Housing program gaining attention
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
A surprisingly successful program that relies on the kindness of landlords to get families who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness into permanent housing is getting new attention from state officials as they re-think their policies on how to help people off the streets.
The housing placement program, launched quietly in 2004 with just $500,000, has moved more than 4,200 people who were homeless or near-homeless into long-term housing.
Officials say the program outperformed better-funded and longer-running ventures by doing what initially appeared impossible — finding landlords in a hot market to offer a few units at affordable rates, often to large families with bad or no credit.
"We've been placing people like crazy," said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, which runs two shelters on O'ahu and also contracts with the state to operate a portion of the placement program. "Sometimes, people just need a little extra help."
'PEOPLE JUST LIKE US'
In the past three months alone, the nonprofit has put at least 58 families into permanent homes. Their list of landlords is growing, too — by word of mouth.
Israel Francisco, whose family owns two apartment buildings in Waipahu, has housed several large homeless families through the program.
"For me, it's a no-brainer," Francisco said. "They're people just like us. They just need a second chance in life."
Francisco said his 21 units are all two bedrooms and start at $1,250 — slightly below the "fair market rent" of $1,279 for a two bedroom on O'ahu, but well below what many comparable apartments go for in the neighborhood.
Some of his apartments house large families, and he once had 11 people in one unit. "In reality, there should be only four people," he said, "but we try to be accommodating."
Officials and nonprofits say they see big potential for the program, whose success comes as the state is grappling with dismal placement statistics at its first shelter in Kaka'ako and retooling its campaign to end homelessness, focusing on transitional rather than emergency services to place the homeless.
But they also stress the program is not one-size-fits-all and won't solve the homeless crisis on its own. It works for many low-income families, but not for those with no ability to pay rent.
Vanessa Rodillas, her husband and their four children were living in a crowded Wai'anae home with relatives, unable to find an affordable rental, when they found a place of their own through the program. They moved into their new Makaha home in November, and they pay $925 a month.
"It's not a mansion, but it's home," Rodillas said, laughing. "It was a very pleasant gift to us. We thank God every day for the blessings we received."
The state funds the program with federal welfare surplus money, which restricts eligibility to low-income families. Some nonprofits use their own money to help homeless couples or single people into housing.
Funding for the program was increased to $2 million in 2005 and $2.76 million in 2006, when it was broadened to include Maui, Kaua'i and the Big Island.
Here's how the program works: First, service providers act as middle men, linking low-income families with landlords who are willing to offer a discount, make exceptions for how many people can live in a unit or look past bad credit.
Once a deal is struck, the service provider helps a family pay the deposit and first month's rent — one of the key barriers for low-income families. Then, even after a family is in a home, the service provider keeps up contact with the family, talks to them about finances and helps them in case of emergencies.
DOING IT ON THEIR OWN
Though the families get no ongoing subsidy to help pay their rent, providers do have discretion to occasionally help tenants with rent or utility bills if they fall behind. The safety net is a big plus for landlords in the program, who say the loss of a few dollars in the short run means they have a reasonable assurance of a long-term tenant.
Providers also say landlords like having an unbiased mediator — the housing specialist — to help resolve disputes.
"The whole housing placement program was created because we had so many families who were out there searching," said Sandi Miyoshi, homeless services director at the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority. "They needed an intervention. They needed someone bringing the landlord to the table."
That's something the Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako is still struggling to do. Since the shelter opened in May, only 18 percent of its original 340 tenants have found permanent homes. And all five of the families that have left moved into public housing — not market rentals.
By comparison, the 4,234 people helped through the housing placement program over the past two years moved into 782 rental homes. So far this fiscal year, which started in July, 1,542 people moved into 256 homes.
Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, which manages the shelter, said the biggest difference between the housing placement program and how the shelter moves families into housing is Next Step doesn't have any funding to help a family pay a deposit or first month's rent for a home.
Also, social workers at the shelter are often dealing with multiple issues, rather than just concentrating on housing, so it is more difficult for them to strike up relationships with landlords.
Porter said the shelter wants to revamp itself, offering more services for homeless families. Part of the change will include a hard look at how families are helped after they are placed.
MORE THAN HOUSING
"We want to start doing intensive case work with them, not just getting them in there and dropping them, but helping them to do their budget," he said, adding the placement program provides a good model.
Peter Mattoon, who helps run the placement program at Catholic Charities, said families across the state are on waiting lists to get placed. Some are living on beaches or in parks, others are crowding into small homes with relatives.
Still others are facing evictions or rent increases and are at high risk for homelessness.
There are so many families that need help, the nonprofit is forced to turn people away or direct them to emergency shelters or other services.
But Mattoon said the program is not only limited by its funding. The work of finding affordable rentals and accommodating landlords is a slow, arduous process.
"Without the support of landlords, we're left on our own," said Mattoon, whose nonprofit housed about 130 families from June through December.
Mattoon, a housing and intake specialist, is constantly trying to add landlords to his Rolodex. When he drives past a "for rent" sign, he writes down the number. If he bumps into a landlord, he introduces himself, talks about his program and exchanges business cards.
Miyoshi, of the public housing authority, said the state will evaluate the program over the coming year to determine whether it could grow yet again and by how much. "The only reason they can't serve more clients is they're needing to get more landlords," she said. "They're just working frantically."
But amid the success of the program, homeless advocates stress its biggest caveat. "This only works for working people," Mitchell said, "not the chronic homeless or those who don't earn enough money."
Put simply, families in the program must earn enough to pay rent month after month. That means they must have steady, reasonably well-paying jobs.
State officials say they are aware of the limited scope of the program, and add that other programs, such as supportive housing, could meet the needs of other homeless populations.
NOT A FULL SOLUTION
Still, Mitchell said, advocates and housing officials need to be clear the program won't solve the state's homeless problem on its own.
The other downside of the program is what Francisco, the Waipahu landlord, sees daily: big families choosing a crowded apartment over homelessness. It is the better of the two evils, but is it healthy and safe?
For now at least, service providers say getting families out of homelessness or saving them from it is their biggest priority. Plus, if a family is willing to move into a smaller place, they'll likely get placed faster.
Rodillas and her family were lucky. Their home in Makaha has three bedrooms. It also has a yard. "Having something like this really has helped," said Rodillas, who suffers from bipolar disorder. "I'm happy because the children love it."
Her children are 14, 11, 8 and 6.
The family moved to the Big Island three years ago, searching for a cheaper place to live. They were forced to move back after a year, though, because Rodillas needed medical treatment.
They had been living with family members, sharing bedrooms or sleeping in public rooms, until they moved into their new home.
Reach Mary Vorsino at firstname.lastname@example.org.