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Housing the homeless: the “traditional approach” versus “housing first” for grant writers

We’ve been writing grant proposals for housing and supportive services for people experiencing homelessness (this is the PC phrase, but “homeless” is used in the rest of this post) since 1993, so we’ve been at it for long enough to see changing funder and client preferences around approaches come and go. For many reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, homelessness remains a growing and in some respects an intractable challenge in much of urban and rural America; essentially, homelessness is a housing shortage problem. Until we address housing abundance, we’re not going to be able to solve or substantially ameliorate homelessness as a problem.

Recently, we wrote a post on the emerging trend toward harm reduction instead of traditional SUD/OUD treatment. A similar phenomenon is going on with respect to providing housing and supportive services for homeless folks. This is the concept of “Housing First:”

Housing First is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. This approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues.

At first glance, Housing First looks like a reasonable and compassionate approach. In the 1980s, when homelessness as an issue entered public discourse, the sentiment was that Mary and her two kids live in their car because she got laid off from the Piggly Wiggly and was evicted from her apartment. While there are many people who find themselves in this sort of predicament, the majority of homeless have SUD/OUD and, in many cases, are co-diagnosed with serious and persistent mental illness (SPMI). But homelessness is easier to avoid, even for people with SUD, OUD, and/or SPMI, when rents are low. That’s why “it’s not the case that homelessness is high where vacancy rates are high. Indeed, it’s the opposite — the vacancy rate is lower in places with more homelessness.”

Housing for the homeless initiatives have traditionally focussed on a step-down approach similar to that which we described in the post on OUD/SUD treatment versus harm reduction. In the traditional paradigm, homeless people receive housing and other services along a continuum of care starting with a high level of care, and then they “step down” to lower care levels in increments, leading to eventual independent living. Following engagement, referral, or self-presentation and development of an individual housing assistance plan (“IHTP”), the step-down levels often proceed something like:

  • Detoxification/stabilization (if needed)
  • Shelter bed in an emergency shelter (usually limited to 30 to 60 days). Significantly, most shelters are “dry,” meaning that drinking and drugging aren’t allowed in the facility. Still, after breakfast, most people living in shelters spend their days out of the shelter on the street, with the idea that they’ll look for a job, attend treatment sessions, etc., and return at night to sleep. While this is more or less “two hots and a cot,” treatment and other supportive services are sometimes provided in-house and/or by referral.
  • Placement in a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel, transitional housing, or supportive housing unit with in-house and referral supportive services (e.g. SUD/OUD and SPMI treatment, legal assistance, workforce development, primary/dental care, etc.) usually provided in the latter two. In supportive housing, such services are usually case-managed and these facilities are usually dry. While there is typically no length of residency cap for SRO units, there is usually a 12 to 24 month max for transitional and supportive housing facilities. Unfortunately, SROs are largely illegal under the modern zoning regime, which may forces many precariously housed people on the street.
  • Independent living, usually with a Housing Choice Voucher (formerly called Section 8) or in another subsidized housing development, or with family.

The levels can be broken down further, but the above was the common approach and was formalized in the 1987 passage of the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act (McKinney-Vento), administered by HUD. The problem is, though, is that even if a person gets clean and sober, if he or she can’t afford rent, that person is likely to end up back on the street—and thus in high-stress, difficult situations that encourages coping via substance abuse. Covering $700/month in rent is much easier for a person with mental illness and substance abuse challenges than $2,000 a month.

Although McKinney-Vento funds 15 programs with a spectrum of services, the most significant ones are Supportive Housing, Shelter Plus Care (provides site-specific HCVs for the housing development and on-site services), SRO, and Emergency Shelter. One of the first large funded grants S + A wrote was a $4M Shelter Plus Care proposal for a nonprofit in Northern California to convert a vacant motel into a supportive housing facility in 1994. Over the years, McKinney-Vento has disappeared from public view, as these programs have been folded into HUD’s very confusing Continuum of Care (CoC) system. McKinney-Vento programs still form the structure for most federal efforts to help the homeless, but applications are made to the local CoC agency, not directly to HUD—which means local politics come into play, along with typical quiet deals cut among local players. Good luck breaking into CoC funding without an “in.” Well-meaning people in a given community often want to find something to do to help with the issue of homelessness, and they try to find sustainable for it, only to run into the local power structure.

For our first 20 years, most of the proposals we wrote for homeless housing and supportive services followed the above model: the emphasis was always on working with the homeless people to get them clean and sober, with SPMI under control, before moving from a shelter to longer term housing. About 10 years ago, we began to work with clients who wanted to use the Housing First approach: in this approach, underlying SUD/OUD and SPMI challenges are addressed, to an extent, but the overall goal is to provide fast housing—hence the term “Housing First.” This paradigm treats housing as the first step for life improvement and enables access to housing without conditions beyond those of a typical renter. Although supportive services are usually offered, participation is not required. This means the formerly homeless can continue to drink and drug and/or not comply with the SPMI treatment protocols. Utah was the first major state proponent of this approach, in part because Utah allows housing to be built relatively easily, but even Utah has run into problems.

This shift to the Housing Fist model has created something of a battle between the traditional homeless services providers like the faith-based “missions” that are found in most major cities, and the new Housing First kids on the block. This battle is being played out on social media and, most importantly, in public hearings and applications for CoC and other grants. Like any local structured grant system, such as CoC, Ryan White grants for people living with HIV/A, or Title 10 family planning, a “mafia” soon emerges. The mafia is composed of the existing agencies being funded, advocacy groups, and local politicians who have an interest in making sure favored nonprofits get funded. The mafia structure makes it harder for new, innovative agencies to secure a spot at the grant feeding trough. We’ve heard from some of our clients that the Housing First crowd has taken over CoC processes to the detriment of traditional providers. Housing First is clearly the church of what’s happening now.

We’re just grant writers, so we don’t have an immediate opinion as to whether the traditional approach or Housing First is more efficacious, though neither is likely to be highly effective without land-use reform that increases the total number of housing units. Without an abundance agenda, we’re merely reallocating slices of the pie, rather than increasing the pie’s size. Extensive homelessness is a symptom of deeper problems, and it can’t be effectively addressed without dealing with the root cause. Most studies on the subject of “traditional” and “Housing First” are somewhat questionable. While I’ve been in many shelters and other homeless housing settings over the years, I’ve never been in a Housing First facility, but I imagine that things might get a bit out of control come Saturday night. I also don’t know how housekeeping is handled. Also, most people with SUD/OUD and/or SPMI will relapse multiple times, which may send them back to the streets, jail, or residential treatment/hospitalization, meaning that their Housing First unit is actually their Housing Last unit.

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Links: Don’t steal the grant money, where the jobs are, fun grant programs, ameliorating homelessness, and more!

* Don’t embezzle grant funds. If your organization gets grant funding but can’t carry out the proposed services, just admit it and give the money back—or at least stop taking the money. This ought to go without saying and without federal prosecutors getting involved. And, an excellent way of meeting the local US Attorney is to steal grant funds. Some grantees find themselves unable to execute the grant-funded activity, and, while that isn’t optimal, it is okay.

* We have a massive truck driver shortage, and pay is increasing, albeit too slowly, given that shortage. Contrary to the hype, we still appear to be quite far from automating trucking and many other in-demand jobs.

* “There’s a high cost to making drugs more affordable for Americans.” Almost no one is talking about this. We can likely force the cost of today’s drugs and treatments lower—but at the cost of not having new drugs and treatments tomorrow. This seems like a poor tradeoff to me, although that’s a philosophical point. The interesting thing is that no one advocating for price controls admits the tradeoff.

* “Resistance to Noncompete Agreements Is a Win for Workers.” This is an area where the left and right are aligned: the left worries about worker rights, and the right (putatively) worries about free markets. Banning both is a win for left or right.

* My favorite recent grant program: “Supporting Economic Empowerment in the Pakistan Film Industry.” We really want to be hired to write a proposal for this one!

* “Fears grow over ‘food swamps’ as drugstores outsell major grocers: With CVS selling more groceries than Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s combined, researchers fear food ‘deserts’ are becoming ‘swamps’ of processed food.” Another handy proposal term. Both Isaac and I have noticed the expanding food selection at local drug stores.

* More Millennials Are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair,’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb. See also the book Lost Connections.

* “Americans Need More Neighbors: A big idea in Minneapolis points the way for other cities desperately in need of housing.” Obvious but needs to be repeated, as bad land zoning is at the root of many problems in individual cities and America as a whole today. We feel some of the effects when we work on projects like Prop HHH proposals in Los Angeles. If it’s not possible to build a sufficient amount of new housing, then many actors are going to bid up the price of existing housing, and homeless service providers are rarely the top bidder.

* “Los Angeles Is in Crisis. So Why Isn’t It Building More Housing? Rising rents are feeding a surge in homelessness.” The Atlantic is now on the beat Seliger + Associates has been covering for years. These links are congruent with the links immediately above.

* “An Addiction Crisis Disguised as a Housing Crisis: Opioids are fueling homelessness on the West Coast.” Or, as I’d put it, “Both at once, and interacting with each other.”

* The Machiavelli of Maryland: Edward Luttwak is adviser to presidents, prime ministers – and the Dalai Lama. Hugely entertaining, and via MR.

* “Why Transparency on Medical Prices Could Actually Make Them Go Higher.” I’ve long been a price-transparency proponent, but maybe I’m wrong.

* “Housing crisis: Why can’t California pass more housing legislation?” This is much of the reason homelessness is increasing in California: it’s almost illegal to build housing for humans.

* “Why mention the Affordable Care Act (ACA) when Democrats can debate shiny new Medicare-for-all?” I post this not for the political valence but for the discussion of what has and has not changed in healthcare over the last decade; in many ways, there’s been less change than both ACA proponents hoped for and opponents feared.

* Why Are U.S. Drivers Killing So Many Pedestrians? “If anything else—a disease, terrorists, gun-wielding crazies—killed as many Americans as cars do, we’d regard it as a national emergency.” Maybe the automotive era was a terrible, murderous mistake.

* “Progressive Boomers Are Making It Impossible For Cities To Fix The Housing Crisis: Residents of wealthy neighborhoods are taking extreme measures to block much-needed housing and transportation projects.” Not far from what you’ve been reading here for years, but the news is getting out there.

* “Live carbon neutral with Wren: Offset your carbon footprint through a monthly subscription.” Many people wonder what they as individuals can do. Here is one answer.

* “The numbers are in: SF homeless population rose 30% since 2017.” While people are slowly but surely linking SF’s terrible zoning rules with its extraordinary homelessness challenges (just like L.A.), the city isn’t moving fast enough to make real changes. Interesting fact: about one in 100 San Francisco “residents” lack a place to live. And there is purported to be more dogs than kids living in SF.

* “FBI investigating tattooed deputy gangs in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.” This is almost unbelievable, but here it is.

* The radical case for teaching kids stuff. Relevant to those of you running early childhood education programs like Head Start and UPK.

* “Seliger + Associates enters grant writing oral history (or something like that).” This is a favorite essay, as since then we’ve seen, many times, our own phrases and proposal structures come back to us, like ships in a bottle dropped at sea that then wash up on our shores.

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Don’t trip over the homeless on your way to the LA Proposition HHH Homeless Facilities Bidders Conference

Although we rarely go to RFP bidders conferences, last week I was in Downtown LA during the Prop HHH Homeless Facilities RFP, so I stopped by—and noticed the interaction between the homeless services professionals and the homeless.

The conference was held on the 15th floor of City Hall South, a faceless 60s concrete monolith between the iconic City Hall and somewhat infamous Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters.* City Hall South is surrounded by the kind of lifeless concrete plaza Jane Jacobs railed against.

As I walked across the plaza, I noticed a fairly elaborate homeless encampment (e.g., tents, tarps, shopping carts, etc.); real homeless are hanging out around the public fortress, and inside the fortress City slugs and nonprofit reps are discussing how to hand out $1.2 billion to help the homeless. I was tempted to invite a couple of real homeless folks to come up to the conference with me, just to gauge the reaction, but I demurred.

I sat in the plaza for about 15 minutes after the conference and not a single attendee—they were marked by their visitor badges—even looked at the homeless. Consider this another small but notable dispatch from the real world to the proposal world.


* When I worked for Mayor Tom Bradley in the mid-70s, my office was on the 23rd floor of City Hall; I parked next to Parker Center and walked through City Hall South every morning and afternoon for about 18 months. It’s a strange, slightly melancholic feeling to be back after all these years. There were no homeless around City Hall or City Hall South back then. I’m not sure what this means, but it doesn’t feel much like progress to me.

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The Mystery of LAHSA Homeless Census Numbers, HUD and Data Implications

The LA Times’s story “County’s homeless population difficult to quantify” tells us that there are 54,000 homeless people in L.A.—or are there? Apparently “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says it lost confidence in the survey methodology” used by our friends LAHSA—the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority—and consequently HUD knocked 18,000 homeless people out of L.A. county. So there are 54,000 homeless in L.A. County, or 36,000, or any other number you care to make up.

It’s almost impossible to accurately define the number of homeless because the definition of homelessness is itself fluid. Does one night on the streets count? Does two? A week? What if someone has a home but runs away for a period of time. For grant writing purposes, homeless counts are a facet of issues we’ve described before, in posts about finding and using phantom data and the difficulty of performing a significant evaluation. Fortunately, funders are like journalists in that they often care less about the epistemological and statistical questions meaning of the number than they care about having a number.

Despite the debate, the numbers may not actually matter: the reporter, Gale Holland, doesn’t mention this, but HUD actually doesn’t allocate McKinny-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant money based on homeless censuses. Instead, McKinney Act funds—otherwise known as “Continuum of Care” grants—allocates money based on population, poverty, and other cryptic metrics in specified geographic areas. Consequently, the estimated number of homeless derived from the annual homeless count required by HUD isn’t real important.

HUD also requires that urban cities, counties and states draft “Continuum of Care Plans,” or something similar, to end homelessness as part of the Consolidated Plan process. We know because we read and analyze Continuum of Care and Consolidated Plans whenever we write a HUD proposal, which is pretty often. We’ve been reading these plans for 20 years and they all say more or less the same thing. No Consolidated Plan says, “Our goal is to increase homelessness.”

Instead, there is inevitably a vague plan to increase the amount of affordable housing and to end homelessness, usually in about twenty years. Ending homelessness is the cold fusion of grant writing, always on the horizon and never actually here.

Twenty years is just soon enough to be plausible but long enough that the officials who are currently in office are likely to be elsewhere, which leaves space for the next crop of officials to make the same promises. Homelessness is probably not amenable to being cured. Leaving aside the fact that most major coastal cities like L.A. are actually becoming less affordable, not more, a lot of long-term homeless also don’t necessarily want to live in conventional housing, because conventional housing tends to come with lots of rules: no booze, no (illegal) drugs, anyone with a mental illness must take meds, low noise requirements, and so on. For a lot of the long-term homeless, the street doesn’t impose those rules and can actually seem preferable, despite its well-known hazards.

Worcester Massachusetts, where I went to college, has a famous, controversial “wet” homeless shelter. That shelter’s philosophy is simple: the homeless are better off in a relatively safe place, even if they want to drink, rather being forced onto the street by sobriety rules. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood NIMBYs are not fond of the shelter. This schism between wet and dry shelters demonstrate the way real homeless programs run right into all sorts of progressive ideal problems. Those problems can be ignored in the grant world, but they remain stubbornly entrenched in the real world. Gravity opposes the best intentions of rocket engineers.

To return to our previous point, in neither real world or the grant world does the size of the homeless population really matter. In the real world, there is nothing at stake in whether L.A. has 54,000 or 36,000 homeless. Neither number is going to an increase in the number of beds available—which matters—or the rules associated with those beds. In the proposal world, homelessness is always a crisis that needs just a few more grant dollars to fix—within, say, the next 20 years.

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HUD’s Confusing Continuum of Care (CoC) Program Explained

HUD just released the FY ’13 Continuum of Care (CoC) Program NOFA, with $1.6 billion available for an array of housing and related services for the homeless. But the process of trying to access that money is deliberately confusing. We’re going to explain how it works in this post, mostly for our own amusement but also in an attempt to educate readers.

“CoC” is the acronym for the federal Continuum of Care program. But “CoC” is also the acronym used for local Continuum of Care programs, as well as local or regional Continuum of Care bodies. To access federal CoC grant funds to help implement the local CoC program, potential applicants—like garden-variety nonprofits—have to go through the local CoC body, which is usually a joint powers authority set up to access federal CoC dollars by local governments, or, in some cases, the state itself. That’s a lot of CoCs, any way you look at it.

Since there is no shortage of acronyms, it would have been nice if the GS-15s at HUD had done a little CoC differentiation to reduce the confusion. Regardless of the nomenclature confusion, most nonprofit or public agencies (which are eligible CoC grantees) cannot apply directly to HUD. Rather, the CoC application has to be first submitted to the local CoC and approved for inclusion in the master CoC application sent in by the CoC.*

Astute readers who know anything about bureaucratic processes are now thinking that the CoC local body system created by HUD sounds like a recipe for confusion and potential collusion, at best.

Those readers are correct. The CoC system has become, in effect, a cartel, with each local CoC able to encourage local providers it likes and discourage ones it doesn’t like, or discourage ones that are not part of the current service delivery system. HUD has in effect created a class of self-perpetuating apparatchiks. This is the flip-side of mandating collaboration: your putative collaborators can easily take you out at the kneecaps, and it’s an example of the problems we’ve written about in “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals?” and “Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It.”

The fundamental problem here is that the local CoC can stifle subsidiary organizations, and that stifling is mandated by the CoC NOFA itself:

24 CFR 578.9 requires CoCs to design, operate, and follow a collaborative process for the development of an application in response to a NOFA issued by HUD. As part of this collaborative process, CoCs should implement internal competition deadlines to ensure transparency and fairness at the local level.

If you, a potential applicant, didn’t hear about the “internal competition deadline,” you can’t apply. And those deadlines aren’t published in any regularized way or forum, like, say, the Federal Register. Because you have to do the local submission to be part of the CoC’s HUD submission, it makes it more complicated for a garden variety nonprofit to get a CoC grant. Though we’d definitely be interested in working for some malcontent organization that wants to submit a local proposal at the risk of rejection, then appeal to HUD with a claim that the local organization is failing to perform its duties, no one has called us with this proposition yet, though the situation is probably common in the CoC / homeless services world. These are the kinds of stories that, if we had any real reporters left in America, would be covered in the media.

We have some history with CoC, which was originally part of the Reagan era McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.” Congress passed it in 1987. The original CoC program consisted of three separate grant programs: the Supportive Housing Program, the Shelter Plus Care Program, and the Single Room Occupancy Program. When Seliger + Associates was getting started, one of the first funded proposals we wrote was a $3,000,000 Supportive Housing grant for a nonprofit in Northern California. This was a direct HUD submission, as it was before the local CoC body infrastructure was created.

For reasons that are not clear to us, during the tenure of Andrew Cuomo, or Frankenstein as we used to refer to him around the office because of his uncanny resemblance to our bolt-necked friend, these programs were pumped up as part of Clinton-era response to the “homeless problem” of that time and the CoC system was birthed. As a result, a new layer of bureaucracy began to be consolidated, running parallel to the city, county or state level (in this respect, CoCs are a bit like Community Action Agencies).

We’ve interacted with this new layer of bureaucracy. Although we have written CoC applications in many states, we are most familiar with Los Angeles’s CoC—the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). This bureaucratic gem sprung forth fully grown from LA City and County at the behest of HUD about 15 years ago like Athena from the head of Zeus. It now has a $73,000,000 budget and over 100 steely-eyed bureaucrats, but LAHSA is virtually unknown outside of the homeless services provider community.

When HUD changed the rules, there had to be a Continuum of Care Plan for a local area in order for an applicant to be eligible (LAHSA is in charge of the plan in most of L.A. County). And the applicant had to fit into the Plan. Isaac actually wrote a nominal statewide Continuum of Care Plan for Arkansas around 1997 for a housing authority applicant, because Arkansas didn’t want to do one, but our client couldn’t apply without one. So, we just wrote a CoC Plan to enable our client to apply.

Eventually, the local-level CoCs got consolidated in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, if you weren’t part of the Continuum of Care syndicate in the mid-90s, you might still not be. But almost no one understands this, and the only people who do are the people working for the local CoCs. In the case of LAHSA, only three of of the 88 municipalities in Los Angeles County—Long Beach, Glendale, and Pasadena—have opted out of LHASA and have their own CoC bodies. In Pasadena, it’s the Pasadena Housing and Homeless Network. We assume an interest in the administrative overhead that is gleaned from being designated as a CoC has something to do with the three LAHSA outliers in the LA County CoC ecosystem.

By now, CoC operates somewhat like passthrough funds, except that it isn’t part of the two other federal Block Grant systems: Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from HUD and the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) from the Office of Community Services (OCS).

This raises the obvious question: Why isn’t the CoC grant program part of either CDBG or CSBG? For example, every jurisdiction that receives a CDBG Block Grant must prepare a Consolidated Plan every five years, with annual Action Plan updates. If you browse through any Consolidated Plan, you’ll notice an emphasis on homelessness and homeless programs. But, instead of using the existing system, a parallel system has been legislated into existence, with the usual set of costs and confusions. This post is designed to dispel some of the confusions. But we don’t have the power to dispel the costs.


* I wrote this sentence to see how many times I could work “CoC” into it.

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First 5 LA Issues a Huge RFP for Homeless Services, and Nimble Nonprofits Start Hopping (Or Hoping)

Los Angeles County nonprofits have a unique opportunity to nibble on some fresh grant lettuce, because First 5 L.A.* just issued a NOFA for the Supportive Housing for Homeless Families Fund. There is $23,000,000 available to provide housing and supportive services for families that are homeless or at-risk of homelessness, that have had involvement with the child welfare system, and that include children aged prenatal to 5 years in Los Angeles County. This is a ton of money for a local funding cycle, and the announcement illustrates that, despite rumors to the contrary, there are many sources of funding available if you keep your ears up and your eye on the prize. If you’re a LA nonprofit even vaguely interested in homeless services, hop over to the mandatory bidder’s conference and nose around. I think you’ll find this to be a pretty tasty NOFA.

Since the advent of the seemingly endless Great Recession, we’ve written several posts about how important it is for nonprofits to stay nimble—including “Time Banks, Barter, Community Gardens and More: Economic Misery Provides Opportunities for Nimble Nonprofits” and “Repurpose: The Word of the Decade and a Word for Nonprofits to Live By.” The close presidential election and the potential cutbacks in federal funding posed by the looming fiscal cliff should also have most nonprofits hopping around like bunnies, as they are hoping for new income streams.


* Each of California’s 58 counties has a First 5 agency that distributes grant funds derived from the 50 cent special tax on cigarettes (Proposition 82), which was championed by Meathead, AKA Rob Reiner a few years ago. Since all California counties have this funding stream, if you’re a CA nonprofit that provides early childhood services, go to your First 5 agency and take a dip.