Affordable Housing Testimony to Philadelphia City Council | Project HOME

Affordable Housing Testimony to Philadelphia City Council

Philadelphia continues to struggle with the convergence of three issues: more than one out of every four residents lives in poverty, one in five live with disabilities, and there is only one affordable home available for every three extremely poor households.

Testimony to Philadelphia City Council Pursuant to Resolution No. 140577
Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development, and the Homeless
April 27, 2015 (rescheduled from Monday, April 6, 2015)

Good afternoon.  My name is Laura Weinbaum, and I am the Vice President for Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives at Project HOME, a housing and services provider striving to end and prevent homelessness in Philadelphia.  I am presenting on behalf of Sister Mary Scullion who regretfully is unable to be here today. Thank you for the opportunity to offer remarks here today, on behalf of the Project HOME community, addressing the need for affordable housing for people who are homeless. I am joined today by members of the Project HOME community who are interested in being a part of this conversation.

As you know, Philadelphia continues to struggle with the convergence of three issues:  more than one out of every four residents lives in poverty, one in five live with disabilities,  and there is only one affordable home available for every three extremely poor households.   The need for affordable and permanent supportive housing for people living on extremely low incomes ($721 monthly SSI, for instance) is as great as ever.  The PHA waiting list is longer than 10 years.    The Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services cannot even maintain a wait list for people who do not meet certain criteria because the demand is overwhelming.  Each year, homeless outreach organizations engage more than 5,500 individuals living on the street, in cars, train and bus stations, abandoned buildings, and other places not meant for human habitation. About 14,000 people access shelter each year.  At a given point in time, the City estimates an average of 650 people living on the streets, roughly 300 of whom are in Center City.

While the need is great in many areas, looking ahead, we believe there are four specific areas for focus: homeless veterans; vulnerable chronic street homelessness; homeless young adults; and people who are homeless by virtue of addictions.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that nationwide, 49,933 veterans are homeless on any given night.  The National Coalition for Homeless Vets estimates that another 1.4 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions . Many of those vets live right here in Philadelphia.  An estimated 10-20 percent of street homeless individuals are veterans.  Philadelphia is one of 10 communities selected by HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to participate in the Dedicating Opportunities to End Homelessness Initiative, and one of the cities selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ 25 Cities Initiative. Through these initiatives, Philadelphia has established the goal of ending veteran homelessness by December 2015. As a result of these efforts, 450 homeless veterans entered permanent housing in the last year. We have the resources to serve approximately 725 veterans experiencing homelessness in the next year.

The City of Philadelphia, in partnership with HUD, the Philadelphia Continuum of Care, Project HOME, Impact Services, and the Philadelphia Veteran Multi-Service Center, is on track to end veteran homelessness, with a plan to achieve that goal by the coming Veterans Day, showing that we can make an impact when there are sufficient resources to address the issue.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines chronically homeless individuals as those who have been homeless for a year or longer, or have experienced four episodes of homelessness in the last three years, and have a disability.  This group is roughly 20 percent of the homeless population yet consumes 60 percent of the resources.    Along with communities across the country, Philadelphia is working to end chronic homelessness by strategically targeting resources to those who have been on the streets the longest, those who are most vulnerable, and/or those who are experiencing chronic street homelessness. By redesigning systems and services to serve this population, Philadelphia hopes to meet the ambitious goal of Opening Doors: the Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness of ending chronic street homelessness by 2016.

In 2011, Project HOME, Bethesda Project, Horizon House, and Pathways to Housing PA formed a collaborative to permanently house the roughly 1,000 most vulnerable persons living on the streets.  Working with the City and other providers, at the end of FY14, 411 from this target group were permanently housed, and 200 more were staying indoors in non-permanent housing.  90 percent of these individuals housed by partners have retained housing for one year or more. Since the start of this initiative, the Center City street count dropped from 379 to 312 (four-season average).

According to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 194,302 youth and children (up to the age of 24) were homeless on a single night in 2014 nationwide.   Given the difficulty of counting homeless youth (because they tend to live intermittently with others, “doubled up” or “couch-surfing”), that estimate is likely an undercount and the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that during a one-year period, there are 550,000 unaccompanied youth and young adults up to the age of 24 who experience homelessness for more than one week.   Recent research by Dr. Dennis Culhane shows that vulnerable young adults especially those transitioning from foster care, juvenile justice, and residential treatment services may be the fastest-growing group,  needing interventions to stabilize, educate, employ, and empower them.  Every year, an estimated 1,000 young adults age out of foster care in Pennsylvania.   Research has shown that these emancipated young adults face a number of challenges during the transition to adulthood – housing stability may be among the greatest.  We also know that LGBTQ-identified young adults are experiencing homelessness at an alarmingly disproportionate rate – as much as 40 percent.   Federal research suggests that gaps in the support services young adults receive to transition successfully to independent living are contributing to this issue.

Each year, approximately 45 people die while homeless in Philadelphia, the majority from addiction-related causes.   Expanding street homeless outreach services to Kensington has shown us how vast the problems of homelessness caused by addiction are in our city and our work with the city’s Homeless Death Review Team has shown that this is truly a matter of life and death.   We believe that our best bet for addressing addiction is pairing creative use of Medicaid and other resources with housing, healthcare, education, and employment.

We have several basic recommendations for further consideration that I will lay out here:

First, we can maximize our impact through transparency and collaboration among PHA, providers, and the City’s many agencies that touch issues of housing, jobs, services, and homelessness.  Second, we need to not only use existing resources better, but explore models from other places to bring new resources to bear in housing people with special needs. The homeless population is aging, mirroring general population trends.  Supportive housing providers need local flexibility in Medicaid financing to meet the homeless population’s unique needs – ranging from aging to addiction to medical frailty.  We need to address the problems of behavioral health – including both mental illness and addiction – by pairing creative use of Medicaid with housing, healthcare, education, and employment.  Finally, we must continue to create affordable housing; doubling the Philadelphia Housing Trust fund will leverage state and federal resources to meet the demand.

We need to explore additional models for State and city investment in housing.  Both the research done for the City’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness  and a report by Feather Houston  provide examples of best practices from other places and insight into the multiple city, county, and state funding streams that go into these deals in localities across the country. Both the State and federal housing trust funds will complement Philadelphia’s own efforts, but there must be additional efforts to mix funding sources.  

At the same time, primarily through collaboration and strategic use of resources, Philadelphia has made tremendous strides in providing housing to many of our most vulnerable citizens.  We have the lowest per-capita rate of street homelessness among major cities reporting their data from Point in Time counts to HUD, despite high poverty.  As a city, we have prioritized providing permanent housing – the most effective tool for both addressing and preventing homelessness – throughout our communities.  Our work at Project HOME and at providers across the city is focused on an overall strategy consistent with the Federal plan to end homelessness: ending veteran homelessness by 2015, chronic homelessness by 2016, and homelessness among children, families, and youth by 2020.  

We appreciate your review and consideration of this vital issue and are happy to answer any questions at this time or in the future.  We hope to help Philadelphia create neighborhood amenities that not only house the most vulnerable Philadelphians, but contribute to the quality of life for our whole community, because none of us are home until all of us are home.