Published on
the Houston Chronicle

HUD Study: Rent Assistance Cheaper Than Shelters

Renee C. Lee

In this Jan. 29, 2010 photo, John Banks, who is homeless, sits in his wheelchair at the San Francisco Public Library in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

When helping
first-time homeless, it's cheaper for some communities to house
individuals and families in rental apartments than in emergency shelters
or transitional housing, according to a federal study released
Thursday. In Houston, for example, it cost almost $1,400 a month to
place a family in an emergency shelter compared with the cost of $743
month to place them in a two-bedroom apartment.

The average monthly cost to the city's
homeless system to house, feed and provide other services to an
individual is $2,257 and for a family, $11,627.

The figures were released Thursday in
the Department of Housing and Urban Development's first comprehensive
study on what it cost to house the newly homeless.

"Overall, this expands our knowledge
of the true cost of homelessness," said HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary
Mark Johnston. "It's a critical first step in response to

can use the information and methodology to determine whether they need
to retool their programs to better serve the population and get the most
bang for their money, he said.

A little more than 7,000 individuals
from four cities, including Houston, and almost 4,000 families from six
cities, also including Houston, were tracked over an 18-month period
beginning in 2006.

The study's most significant finding is that in almost all
cases, the cost of providing housing in homeless programs exceeds the
fair market rent cost of providing rental assistance with support

think it is a good finding to show us that the way we have approached
homelessness maybe not as effective as we like," said Thaos Costis,
chief executive officer of Houston's SEARCH Services, which finds
permanent housing for the homeless and provides rental assistance. "It
opens up our eyes to look at things differently."

Other key study findings include:

• • Overnight emergency
shelter for individuals has the lowest cost per day.

• • Emergency shelter for
families is equal or more expensive than transitional housing.

• • Transitional housing for
individuals is more expensive than permanent housing with supportive

of stays examined

Certain patterns
among first-time homeless also emerged in the study. Among the cities
examined, 50 percent to 65 percent of single adults and 58 percent to 72
percent of families stayed in a homeless program only one time during
the study period.

But individuals who used programs more than once used them frequently.
The average stay for individuals was more than double the average number
of stays for families.

Families had fewer stays but stayed in programs for longer
periods (three to 10 months) than individuals (five to 10 weeks), the
study said.

Houston, 65 percent of individuals had only one stay, with an average of
three stays and an average of 39 days in a homeless program.

Seventy-two percent of
families had 1.4 stays with an average of 113 days in a program.

The more time spent in a
shelter or transitional housing and longer periods between stays
generally means higher costs, the study said.

Costis said the study builds the case
for the housing-first concept, which is popular in northern states. The
goal is get to people out of emergency shelters and into permanent
housing immediately.

"In the South, we're still working on the premise that you
need to be sober, mentally stable and have a job before we can help
you," she said. "We're studying these other entities and how do they
effectively approach it so we can service at the permanent level and not
the transitional level which can be expensive."

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