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"The Impact of Court-Ordered Supplementary Housing Subsidies on Homeless Families,"

by Mary Ann Burg & Lynne Soine July/August 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

In 1981, Sylvia Sharp and her four children were forced into homelessness when the unheated, unfurnished apartment they occupied in Suffolk County, Long Island, was boarded up by the landlord. At that time, the prevailing fair market rental rate for a two-bedroom apartment in the county was $463; since their public assistance shelter allowance was $277 per month, the Sharp family was unable to locate affordable housing. The family began a three-year odyssey of moves through the county's different welfare motels. In total, Sylvia Sharp and her daughters spent 1,000 days homeless at a total cost to taxpayers of about $58,000. If the Sharp family had received, a shelter allowance equal to prevailing fair market rental costs for the same period, the cost to taxpayers would have been approximately $20,000-$38,000 savings.

Of at least equal or greater significance are the social and human costs. Sylvia Sharp and her children were subjected to a series of destabilizing, dehumanizing, destructive and dangerous situations brought about by the Department of Social Services. A social work intake summary, completed when Ms. Sharp contacted the Nassau-Suffolk Law Services Committee, describes the toll that multiple emergency housing placements had taken: "Ms. Sharp described feeling disoriented, confused and de-established. She said she could not cope with all those moves and described the effect of all the years of instability as being cumulative. ... She simply could not stand being displaced again." The intake summary draws the following conclusion: Ms. Sharp "appears to have done a yeoman's job in holding this family together up to now; the situation's becoming extremely tenuous... There is a very thin thread holding this entire family together and every threat to stability, routine and survival shreds the thread ever finer."

Sylvia Sharp's experience reflects Department of Social Service policies that are clearly in conflict with reality and with each other. Provided with a shelter allowance that was always substantially lower than even the least costly available housing, Ms. Sharp was then "punished" for not finding permanent housing. The Department's records document this "Catch 22" repeatedly. These same records document the Department's insistence that she obtain housing that cost far more than her shelter allowance provided, by using her public assistance grant to make up the difference. One arm of the Department-housing-was causing Ms. Sharp to violate policies of another arm of the same Department child welfare. From this dilemma emerged a seemingly simple question: Why does the Department of Social Services spend more than $1,700 per month to house these homeless families in welfare motel rooms, but refuse to provide a monthly housing allowance that would pay for adequate and permanent housing at much lower cost? This question became the basis of the class action lawsuit (Sharp v. Perales) brought in 1987 by the Nassau-Suffolk Law Services Committee against the Department of Social Services.

The Sharp lawsuit resulted in a court order to the Department of Social Services to pay a supplementary housing allowance to families with open ADC-U (Aid to Dependent Children/ Unemployed Caretaker) cases living in emergency housing. This supplement brought total housing allowances for such families up to the 1987 fair market housing costs, as much as $800 per month, depending on family size. The calculation of the families' basic need grant, approximately $379 per month for a family of five, would be unaffected by this increase in housing payments. Their Food Stamp allowance was also unaffected by this increase.

In order to become a member of the lawsuit, the public assistance client residing in emergency housing had to firs identify rental housing which passes DSS inspection, then go to the Law Services office to sign up for the lawsuit.

At the time of this writing' Law Services continues to add eligible families to the suit as intervenors on an ongoing basis, and will continue to do so until the case goes to the Appeals Court. Membership in the lawsuit means that th ADC-U family's housing allowance goes directly to the landlord (rather than to the family along with their basic needs grant). It also restricts families from moving the housing supplement is no transferable from one housing unit to a new housing unit (except in extreme cases of need). Therefore, if a family decides to move, they will likely hose the supplement, and, ironically, can only pick it up again if they return to emergency housing and re-apply through Law Services.

Interviewing Class Action Members

Our study was initiated when the authors were contacted by Law Services and asked to conduct a follow-up of: Sharp intervenors. Law Services did no have the staffing or the resources to systematically collect data on person: who were added to the suit, but saw the opportunity for a unique natural experiment of using housing supplements to increase housing stability among formerly homeless families. The investigators received a PRRAC grant to conduct the research.

At the time the class was certified (November 1988), there were approximately 350 Sharp intervenors, all of whom we attempted to contact by mail or telephone to ask if they would be willing to be interviewed in-depth in person at a later date. The primary purpose of the interviews was to get a detailed housing history and a detailed appraisal from intervenors of the effects of extra rental money on housing location, affordability, quality, and landlord/ lessee transactions. The secondary purpose of the interviews was to generate detailed data on intervenors' sources and use of formal and informal supports, including public assistance, paid employment, health care access, and proximity to family and friends. Detailed questions were asked about their children's welfare, including their education histories, learning disabilities, day care utilization, routine health care utilization, and illness histories.

Interviewers were trained by the project investigators. Each of the interviewers had some experience in social service delivery, all were female, one African American and three whites. We attempted to match all African American intervenors with the African American interviewer. Although several of the consenting intervenors had identified themselves as Hispanic on the short survey, we were not able to hire a Hispanic interviewer. All intervenors spoke English fluently. The female heads of families were interviewed in all cases, and all interviews were conducted in the intervenor's home.

Although our research goal was to complete 50 in-depth interviews, we could only complete 31. In some cases, a month elapsed between the time intervenor gave consent to be interviewed and when the interviewer made telephone contact to arrange the interview. Many of the attempted phone contacts resulted in no answer; the remainder of the failed contacts were due to incorrect phone listings and non-returned phone messages.

Impact of Court-Ordered Rent Supplements

Clearly, from the point of view of the women interviewed in this study, having the extra rent money, and thereby reducing the gap between housing allowances and fair market rental costs, eased the process of moving from emergency housing to rental housing, since it allowed them to afford available housing, keep up rent payments, and avoid eviction. For the most part, extra rent money meant moving into neighborhoods perceived as safer locations to raise children, mainly because there was less drug traffic. Secondary effects were also evident: most of the women interviewed said that since joining the lawsuit they had been able to pursue job training and further their education. One of the most important secondary effects was that the high rate of school failures among children in these families was reduced, in large part due simply to staying in one place for a longer period of time.

The limits of litigation-based advocacy for these people are also obvious. From the viewpoint of current lawsuit members, their inability to move without sacrificing the extra rent money is very problematic. Clearly, the lawsuit has not improved on the behavior of landlords in regard to housing maintenance and up-keep: the housing conditions of these families was marginal at best. Several of the women interviewed wished to move because of substandard housing conditions, but could not afford to lose the rent money, and certainly were not willing to move back to emergency housing.

Furthermore, the economic circumstances of these families, though undoubtedly improved, had not improved enough to make transition out of decency likely. All families in this study were still just scraping by month to month, rotating and delaying payment of bills, and relying heavily on help from family and friends. Even though the extra rent money meant that the women interviewed had more opportunity to increase their employability through further training, their potential wage income was still not likely to make it advantageous or even possible to escape public assistance dependency.

Assessing Class Action Litigation Advocacy for the Homeless

Use of the courts to address the sociopolitical and economic problem of homelessness has been both analyzed and criticized. Courts are an arena wherein weaker parties in a policy dispute can gain some measure of policy change. Historically, the distinct unwillingness of public officials and agencies address homelessness encouraged legal advocates to use the courts as an authoritative bargaining arena. In states such as New York, where the constitution provides a basis for public responsibility for the impoverished, the courts became the arena in which some assistance for the homeless could be gained. Class action lawsuits became the legal tools by which advocates attempted to secure such assistance.

Critics of class action lawsuits, including lawyers such as Robert Hayes (formerly of the National Coalition for the Homeless), who has litigated and "won" many class action lawsuits on behalf of homeless people, recognize the limitations of this approach to advocacy. Hayes has characterized legal advocacy for homeless people as, "... slow, god awful, very ineffective, bull-in-a-china shop kinds of efforts."

Underpinning much of the criticism of class action lawsuits is the relationship between the issues litigated and soon policy advances. The argument is essentially that class action lawsuits address narrow issues. The fact is that social policy goals are long-range in nature and nowhere near realization, despite a decade of increasing homelessness.

An analysis of the arguments made by advocates and critics of class action lawsuits leads to the conclusion that both short-term strategies represented by class action lawsuits and long-range strategies directed at social policy change are necessary. Rather than polarizing these positions, a synthesis is required if change into occur in the problem of homelessness. Joel Blau, in his 1992 book The Visible Poor. Homelessness in the United States, identifies the importance of creating a social movement that results in a political environment favorable to homeless peoples' rights. In 1987, Robert Hayes wrote about the need for litigation to educate the population and build a consensus about the sociopolitical, economic underpinnings of poverty and homelessness. Until the public climate can be changed to support long-range policy change on behalf of poor and homeless people, short-range strategies such as class action lawsuits are necessary.

Local departments of welfare, charged with the responsibility of assisting homeless families, face conflicting policies and program requirements. Homeless families are provided with emergency shelter, but not for too long, not in one place, and often nowhere near their prior residence. Homeless families are provided with a shelter allowance known by the welfare department to be insufficient to rent any habitable housing unit, and then are held responsible for failing to find housing. Families routinely "raid" their total AFDC grants, calculated to meet minimal needs of the children of these families, and redirect them to rent payments. This redirection of benefits occurs with the welfare department's full knowledge and, as in the case of Sylvia Sharp, full complicity. Clearly, this contradicts child welfare policy.

Overall, the conflicting array of policy and program requirements surrounding homeless families in the welfare system devastates the children in these families. Their benefits are raided and their emotional and educational needs are neglected. Advocacy to establish the primacy of child welfare policy in providing benefits and services to homeless families is essential. These advocacy efforts should focus on achieving residential permanency for children. The detrimental effects of repeated residential changes, especially involving changes in neighborhood, community and schools, have been demonstrated in this study and by others. Advocacy must address program changes that insure decisions regarding homeless families are made in the best interests of the children of those families

Mary Ann Burg & Lynne Some are Assistant Professors at the School of Social Welfare, State University of New York at Stony Brook. For more information, contact them at SUNY/Stony Brook, Health Sciences Center, Leve12, Stony Brook, NY11794-8231, 516/444-3154

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