Among service providers and advocates there is a widely held belief that supportive housing greatly benefits those who are homeless and/or those experiencing life-altering mental or chemical health issues. Much of this belief is based on anecdotal evidence coupled with years of programmatic experience. As advocates have called for increased statewide investments in supportive housing and other forms of affordable housing, very little longitudinal data has been available to verify its efficacy nor to show what kinds of housing opportunities work best for which kinds of populations. (For clarifying purposes, transitional housing is time-limited and usually has intensive self-sufficiency services, while permanent supportive housing focuses on getting people housed for as long as necessary with services to increase stability).
For this reason, the Foundation, along with a number of other funders including the State of Minnesota, funded Wilder Research in 2010 to conduct a 2-year study of 576 randomly selected people in supportive housing programs throughout the state. These individuals were interviewed up to four times over two years. Information collected from these interviews along with data for participants regarding employment, benefit use, and homelessness, formed the basis for a report released last week entitled “Supportive Housing Outcomes in Minnesota.”
The study looked at five primary questions:
- What are the characteristics of transitional housing and permanent supportive housing?
- Does each program type serve a distinct population?
- In what ways are the characteristics of residents served in the two types of programs similar and different?
- What types of program outcomes are achieved by participants? Are outcomes different for those in transitional compared to permanent supportive housing?
- Are the characteristics and outcomes for youth (age 24 and under) different than adults?
The 153-page report is chock-full of useful data, some broad and some focused on discrete data points. A 12-page Executive Summary is a little more digestible without wandering too deep into the weeds. So two years, 153 pages and 576 people later, what have we learned? Distilled to its simplest finding: permanent supportive housing is best suited for men who have been long-term homeless as well as those with more challenging barriers to self-sufficiency such as physical disabilities and serious mental health issues, while transitional housing best serves couples or single parents with children as well as younger people under age 24 for whom stability creates the platform for increased self-sufficiency. Of course individuals of all types are served in both types of programs, but the study discerns what types of housing is best for whom based on actual usage and results.
Digging deeper, here’s what the report and its findings tell me, without citing too many statistics:
- To maximize the limited currently available supportive housing opportunities, a better assessment process is needed to ensure that people are placed in the most appropriate housing based on their situation. Each supportive housing provider should clearly articulate its intended outcomes, the population it intends to serve, and the services it provides. Placements should only be made into these opportunities that meet these criteria. Each provider should not be all things to all people. A centralized coordinated assessment and referral system would go a long way to effective placements that maximize opportunities and provide participants with the greatest possibility for success. Private funders could partner with government to help support the development of this system.
- Since income is essential to a successful exit from supportive housing, stronger connections to employment training and other employment supports should be established to help those for whom employment is realistic outcome. Although job clubs, soft skills training, resume writing and internet searches work for a small proportion of low-skill individuals in securing employment, research shows that skills training for real jobs provides better employment prospects and increased wages. Supportive housing providers should not be expected to develop this system, but rather partner with existing nonprofit employment training providers who can assess an individual’s employment possibilities and steer them in a direction that will increase their success.
- Access to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can increase success for those exiting supportive housing, especially as they increase their employment and income once in permanent housing. Advocacy efforts should focus on ensuring that SNAP continues to be widely available as an income supplement.
- Too large of a percentage of program participants experience homelessness again upon exiting a supportive housing program. According to the study one third of all study participants experienced at least one new episode of homelessness by the end of the study. The most likely candidates were men and those with drug or alcohol abuse disorders. Although the majority of these episodes were much shorter in duration, this is still a cause for concern. Additional study might be needed to better identify the common factors that lead to serial bouts with homelessness and the programmatic and policy adjustments that can be made to better address the problem.
- The majority of supportive housing residents suffer from some kind of mental health issue, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed. This is not news to service providers, but it should awaken policy makers who too often look for quick and easy fixes to deeply entrenched and complex problems. Many of those with severe mental health issues may never find their way to independence making a robust longer-term supportive housing system and access to comprehensive mental health services critical for long-term stability. These are policy and funding issues, which must continue to be brought to legislators through both personal storytelling and hard data.
- When provided with the right type of housing and the right set of supports, young people have some of the best outcomes of any supportive housing participant. Key to this was access to regular employment and a consistent set of independent living skills. Unfortunately, youth supportive housing is even less available than for adults. Advocacy should be increased to call for more resources for this type of supportive housing.
I have only begun to scratch the surface here. I would invite you to go and peruse the report itself. One could argue that the findings of this report are not a surprise and in fact are not all that new. But that’s an insider’s reaction. I believe the findings, acquired through rigorous and unbiased research, move from anecdotal to data-driven, which helps build a stronger case for increasing investments in supportive housing specifically when that housing and its services are targeted where opportunities can be maximized based on what we know works for specific subsets of the population. Both transitional housing and permanent supportive housing show positive outcomes, both in keeping with each model’s intended goals. Both are essential to Minnesota having an effective continuum of responses for those experiencing homelessness and housing instability. We need to continue feeding this data to policymakers in digestible chunks, with specific calls to action and specific resource needs.
Later this summer or early this fall, the Foundation is planning to convene a small group of policymakers, service providers and funders to dig deeper into the report to determine next steps, policy implications, unanswered questions and areas for further research and investigation. Stay tuned for more information about what comes from that gathering.