Last winter, Kelly Breitenbach and her three kids, homeless for nearly a decade, sought refuge at a cold-weather shelter in Fullerton.
That night, they got four beds. Soon after, they got something else: acceptance into a program that would get them into a full-time, permanent home.
Now, with a year of finance and life management sessions under her belt, Breitenbach, 36, and her now four children have a two-bedroom apartment in Buena Park. Breitenbach said rent is covered for three months and, after that, she’ll pay a below-market $1,230 a month with the help of federal funding. She’s looking for work.
“It helps me with the deposit, Edison, gas,” she said. “There’s not too much to complain about.”
Breitenbach’s story is an increasingly common solution for homeless people in Orange County, as some local and federal homeless agencies shift their focus and their money from temporary shelters to subsidizing full-time, below-market-rate housing.
It’s not yet clear if the policy shift will work. The relatively new idea hasn’t yet generated long-term data to show whether permanent housing keeps people off the streets forever. And many homeless agencies continue to emphasize temporary shelter, not housing, because that’s still where some federal money is available.
Experts also point out that a shift away from temporary shelters can add to the housing shortage, making it harder for some people to get off the streets.
Still, the shift represents one of the bigger changes in years in the fight to end homelessness.
If somebody is homeless, the best answer might be to get them a home.
“We can serve more families and move them along, but the critical need in the county today is really all about affordable (permanent) housing,” said Margie Wakeham, executive director of Families Forward, an Irvine agency that helps the homeless.
Local groups that help people get into permanent dwellings – groups such as Pathways of Hope, the Fullerton-based organization that helped Breitenbach – are following the federal government’s lead.
For the past couple of years, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has shifted money away from temporary shelters to a rapidly growing pool of money allocated for permanent dwellings. The department’s relatively new rapid-rehousing program offers temporary subsidies for below-market-rate rents for people like Breitenbach.
At the same time, HUD has been giving more money toward supportive housing programs, which provide indefinite leasing or rental assistance and other services, for people who are both homeless and disabled.
The concept of offering full-time housing grew out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which included $1.5 billion for homelessness prevention.
One short-term study hints at success.
In July, HUD released data showing that among 2,282 homeless families surveyed over 18 months, the people who’d been helped with permanent housing were less likely to wind up back on the streets than those who were offered other interventions, including transitional housing.
The study also suggested that the cost of subsidies for permanent housing was comparable to, or substantially less than, other forms of intervention.
The federal department has used that study and others to justify its new philosophy about fighting homelessness.
“We have incentivized people to move in the (rapid re-housing) direction because that is what the data shows works,” said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.
And how HUD views homelessness affects virtually all publicly financed housing agencies.
Now, when seeking HUD money for housing, local agencies increasingly need to offer a plan that puts some of their clients into homes on a full-time basis.
Sullivan said that if an agency in a big, urban place like Orange County wants money for housing that’s not permanent, “they may not be funded at a level they really want to be funded at.”
Based on statistics from 2014, about 84 percent of HUD money to the county was for permanent housing; 12 percent was for transitional, or temporary, shelter.
A NEW APPROACH
The permanent shelter trend is picking up steam locally.
Last month, a partner of Pathways of Hope, Mercy House, got approval from the city of Santa Ana to convert half of Joseph House, historically a transitional housing shelter, into permanent supportive housing.
“What we expect to be able to do is to actually increase the number of persons that we’re serving,” said Larry Haynes, the nonprofit’s executive director.
And Wakeham’s group, Families Forward, recently sold one of its 26 transitional housing condominiums, in Irvine, to help pay for a fourplex in Lake Forest that will be used for permanent, below-market-rate family housing.
The fourplex opened last month. Now, Families Forward is rejiggering seven of its remaining 25 condos into below-market-rate housing. Wakeham said her group is keeping the rest of the condos as temporary housing “because we have very few family (emergency) shelter beds in the county.”
Others point out there is still a place for transitional shelters, the kind of help Breitenbach and her kids got during the year between sleeping at the shelter in Fullerton and moving into their Buena Park apartment.
In August, Yazmin Cerda, a Families Forward client and single mother of two, moved from transitional housing to a below-market-rate apartment in Irvine. She said both housing types are important.
Cerda, 36, said that while in transitional housing, she learned skills that helped make her ready to earn enough to stay in a permanent, though subsidized, home. She’s paying rent of $1,100 a month while studying to become a registered nurse, resuming a career she lost three years ago when she worked at a hospice.
Without that help, Cerda said, “I think I would be just renting a room with my kids because there’s no way I can afford to pay $2,000 for the apartment that I have right now.”
RESISTING THE CHANGE
Not everybody agrees with prioritizing permanent shelter.
Huntington Beach-based Colette’s Children’s Home, which serves homeless single women, mothers and children, is resisting the shift. The agency has nine emergency shelter units, 14 below-market-rate housing units, 22 permanent supportive housing units and 28 transitional housing units in Huntington Beach, Anaheim, Fountain Valley and Placentia. The agency is hoping to keep its transitional stock.
A lot of agencies “are putting all their eggs in one basket,” said Colette’s founder Billy O’Connell. “(But) there’s no data that supports some of the prerogatives that they’re moving to.”
O’Connell has written more than 30 letters to members of Congress on the importance of transitional housing.
“Do we accept whatever policymakers are giving us, or do we stand up and challenge them?” O’Connell said. “We’re going to continue to advocate for what we do and what we believe, and if we have to send out another round of letters to every congressperson in our county, we will do that.”
Orange County does not yet have a comprehensive study comparing success rates between transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, said Karen Roper, director of OC Community Services.
“The bottom line is our 10-year plan to end homelessness was never designed to be a one-size-fits-all plan,” Roper said.
“To end homelessness, different best practices and strategies are needed to effectively serve the different … populations.”
Breitenbach, who has lived at her Buena Park apartment for a few weeks, said that “it’s hard to say” whether transitional or permanent housing should be the funding priority.
She offered herself as an example of a person living in a permanent apartment who still might wind up back on the streets.
“I’m still unemployed. Right now, I’m still needing to pay rent and try to secure a job,” she said.
“If there was more funds for rapid rehousing, it would help so much more to give that person more time transitioning from transitional housing into their own housing.”
O.C. SHELTER INVENTORY IN 2015
1,103 emergency shelter beds
1,578 transitional housing beds
3,466 permanent housing beds
Source: OC Community Services