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Article by Sarah Pragg
In recent months, nearly 400 Delaware households have been sleeping outside, in a car or in an unsheltered place, and have called Housing Alliance Delaware (HAD) looking for emergency shelter.
“That’s a canary in the coal mine,” said Sarah Rhine, housing unit manager at Community Legal Aid Society Inc., “We’re in a crisis, so I’m hoping we can do some creative collaboration to highlight the problem, focus on the problem and bring solutions to the problem.”
Researchers in the University of Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration are doing just that: conducting research, expanding data collection and convening stakeholders to end cycles of homelessness and increase affordable housing options both in Delaware and nationally.
“We see ourselves on the one hand as being a clearinghouse of information and, on the other hand, being a community bringing people together around affordable housing and homelessness in a context that takes a step back,” said Stephen Metraux, associate professor in the Biden School and director of the Center for Community Research and Service (CCRS). “We are here to facilitate more effective solutions, put information out there and address this larger problem.”
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Metraux serves on the board for the Delaware Continuum of Care, facilitated by HAD, which seeks to provide a responsive, fair and just approach to addressing homelessness, while striving to achieve housing for all.
In March 2020, Metraux was monitoring the funding opportunities available when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, was signed into law. He saw an opportunity to connect HAD with Brandywine Community Counseling Center, a leading outreach provider in substance abuse, to launch a statewide outreach program for homeless services. Metraux confirmed, “The program has been running for a year now and it is in the process of getting more sustainable funding.”
Through a new contract with the city of Philadelphia, Metraux will analyze existing outreach services addressing homelessness. This project will identify the parts of the system that are working and what needs to change.
“One of the rewarding parts of my job is the research that I do gets out to people who are in a place to implement change,” Metraux added. “I play a small part of a much bigger effort.”
Metraux has dedicated his career to applied research on homelessness and the outreach services designed to transition people into shelters and ultimately into homes.
“Homelessness touches directly on structural issues, including housing, health care, criminal justice and veterans affairs,” said Metraux. “You have to engage system and structural needs and injustices when addressing homelessness. I find that very compelling.”
Metraux is also collaborating with the UD Partnership for Healthy Communities, the Delaware Healthy Mother and Infant Consortium and State Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown to establish a housing program for women in Delaware who are pregnant and unstably housed.
“The program would provide stable housing through pregnancy and the first year of the child’s life, to reduce infant mortality and provide stability going forward,” explained Metraux.
Through a contract from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Metraux, along with CCRS policy scientists Erin Nescott and Mary Joan McDuffie, are comparing data from the national Medicaid system with data from Delaware’s homelessness data system to understand and identify the populations who are relying on both services, as well as their health care and housing needs.
This research offers an opportunity to understand the population needs like never before. According to Rhine, this “marrying of data will give us the roadmap for better systemic change. It is amazing.”
“We saw a 35% increase in homelessness in 2021, and most of that increase was among families with children,” said Rhine, “and that was not true nationally. Most states saw an increase in individual homelessness.”
HAD contacted Metraux to examine the causes of this increase, understand the nature of the problem and ultimately make recommendations on how to reduce homelessness throughout the state. The results of this analysis was published in a new report, “An Overview of Family Homelessness in Delaware: A Report to Housing Alliance Delaware,” coauthored with UD graduate research assistants Joshua Solge and Olivia Mwangi, and Dennis Culhane from the University of Pennsylvania.
As stated by the report, a closer look at the data indicates that this increase is not due to increased numbers of families becoming homeless, but rather to the extended stays in temporary housing that families are experiencing once they are becoming homeless.
“Homelessness is an immediate issue with long-term solutions,” said Metraux. What is the barrier that prevents someone from moving from homelessness to housing? “Simple answer,” he replied. “The absence of low-cost housing.”
“One thing that everyone experiencing homelessness has in common is poverty,” Metraux explained. “So that even when someone gets their resources together, the only housing that is available is way beyond their housing means, and as a result they sit in the system.”
In January 2020, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jerome Lewis, director of the Biden School’s Institute for Public Administration (IPA), saw a need to address affordable housing in Delaware.
“IPA is concerned about action in affordable housing. There are multiple issues at play here, including finances and land-use,” said Lewis. “We need to make affordable housing a bigger part of local comprehensive planning and communities need to step up and do their part.”
Lewis approached Metraux about forming a housing collaborative that combined CCRS’s expertise in community development and homelessness research with IPA’s expertise in land use planning, transportation and aging in place. This team includes Julia O’Hanlon and Sean O'Neill,IPA policy scientists; Roger Hesketh, CCRS assistant policy scientist; and Mimi Rayl, CCRS graduate research assistant and housing initiative coordinator.
IPA’s well-established relationships with state and local government agencies throughout Delaware enable the centers to coordinate and build on current momentum.
“We as a team can support already existing initiatives in the state, like the work being done by the Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA), HAD and nonprofit organizations, including United Way of Delaware,” O’Hanlon noted. “We can be the connectors to help ensure that housing issues in Delaware – including affordability and access – are approached and dealt with more systematically and from an evidence-based perspective.”
Specializing in health policy and gerontology, O’Hanlon is particularly concerned with ensuring vulnerable populations stay connected in the community.
“Where people live and how they can get to places of interest is really important. I think a lot about access to food, medical appointments, social services and community,” O’Hanlon noted. “Statewide you will find varying issues in terms of where people live and how they get to places of need.” These issues include availability of affordable housing, quality of housing, public transportation and community safety.
As a certified planner with real estate experience, O’Neill partners with local governments and community organizations throughout the state to work on comprehensive plans, housing studies and land use planning.
“You have to take different approaches throughout the state depending on the needs of the community and region,” O’Neill acknowledged. “It’s a totally different set of problems for Western Sussex County as it is for Eastern Sussex County or Wilmington.
“In this process we talked to dozens of people throughout the state, in each county, state level, local level and nonprofits,” said O’Neill. One of their first conversations was with Brad Whaley and Brandy Nauman, with Sussex County’s community development and housing department, to learn about the county’s Housing Opportunities and Market Evaluation study.
“Housing has not been a focus in Sussex County, but quality housing needs attention, and it’s starting to get attention from the county council,” O’Neill added. “As the beach communities develop and get wealthier they are reliant on a resort-type atmosphere, and that whole economy relies on service workers. But those service workers can’t afford to live in the beach communities and they look for housing farther west. The farther west you go, the quality of the housing gets really poor.”
HAD also has faced challenges in applying for funding due to gaps in available data. Rhine explained that the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) funds can be used to address homelessness in qualified census tracts without documentation. However, “because Delaware is such a small state, there is no qualified census tract in Sussex. We don’t have the ability to drill down on areas of need.”
O’Neill and Rayl now serve on the Sussex Housing Group’s Data Committee to help identify opportunities to improve data collection and data sharing, both in the county and throughout the state.
“We hope to take a research role to analyze what’s going on and to bring people together,” O’Neill said. “There are a lot of people working on this throughout the state, but there hasn’t been a way to bring people together. It’s difficult to make those connections based on the way things are structured right now. That’s not unique to Delaware as a state, but given that Delaware is a small state, it’s achievable and we should try to work on it.”
Launched in fall 2021, IPA and CCRS’s Delaware Affordable Housing Webinar Series brings together government leaders, nonprofit advocates, housing developers and community members to disseminate information and work collaboratively. During the most recent webinar, Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, provided a national perspective on the affordable housing crisis. Following her presentation, Steve Metraux, Brandy Nauman, and New Castle County Executive Matthew Meyer discussed how data help inform emerging responses to address these issues.
“We recognized a need to convene stakeholder groups to figure out how to address affordable housing,” said Rayl, “And now we have a whole change in federal policy orientation that makes room again for these conversations to be taken seriously with new federal resources that can be used to address these problems.”
Rayl, who is pursuing her doctorate in urban affairs and public policy, has taken the lead on organizing the webinar series. Her dissertation is focused on how organizational networks, like the Continuum of Care supported by HAD, could catalyze affordable housing development for those who are vulnerable to homelessness.
“Now is the time to be action oriented, and I see these webinars as a place to have discussions about real actions to take to solve the problem,” said Rhine. “This housing team could be [part of that solution]–our work could make an impact in Delaware communities.”
Yet, there is a cost to implementing this amount of change. “We’re in this once in a lifetime opportunity to do something about housing and homelessness, which, let’s be honest, is expensive,” noted Rhine. “And we have this federal mandate to house America.”
The House America Initiative is a federal challenge to re-house individuals with homelessness and build additional affordable housing.
“The federal government is saying, ‘Okay, we gave you this money and this is what you're supposed to do,’” Rhine explained. “Let’s name a number, let’s try to reach it! It’s a very simple idea that we need to house people. We cannot allow our neighbors to be sleeping outside. It’s not okay. It’s not hypothetical, there are people behind this.”
The Initiative was also emphasized by Richard Cho, senior adviser for housing and services in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, during a recent visit to campus as part of UD’s Biden Institute policy dinner series. Each semester, the institute hosts programming that brings together and informs community members on the critical issues facing today’s society. At the November 2021 event, Cho and Metraux discussed how federal aid – including the CARES Act, ARPA and Build Back Better – trickle down to the state level.
Noted by Metraux as “good for the UD community and bringing people together,” the event was attended by students, faculty, community members and government officials – including Matthew Meyer and DSHA Director Eugene Young – with New Castle County joining House America shortly afterward, building on its commitment to invest $30 million in affordable housing and Sussex County launching a housing trust fund.