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Jan. 18, 2022

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VHA works with time-limited aid to provide rent help to more families

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published:
6 Photos
Lacey Wescom, 12, from left, her sister Tillie Thornber, 3, and their mother Wendi Thornber eat ice cream together on Sept. 19 at their home in Hazel Dell. The family used to be homeless, but has made significant strides. This summer Wendi Thornber graduated from Clark College and began a full-time job with PeaceHealth.
Lacey Wescom, 12, from left, her sister Tillie Thornber, 3, and their mother Wendi Thornber eat ice cream together on Sept. 19 at their home in Hazel Dell. The family used to be homeless, but has made significant strides. This summer Wendi Thornber graduated from Clark College and began a full-time job with PeaceHealth. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A few years ago, Roxanne Baldwin, 51, and her children were bouncing between living at a friend’s house and in an RV.

“It’s exhausting to be in that situation,” said Baldwin, who’s a single mom.

Without a permanent address, life was chaotic, and it was easy for her son to be late to school; just figuring out how he would get there was a challenge. Things improved when Baldwin got stable, permanent housing through the School Housing Stability Program. She’s entering her fourth and final year with the small program, which pays for part of her rent and gives special attention to her son’s academic success.

Baldwin said she worked multiple jobs, including a job as a paraeducator, in addition to going to school online to improve her situation.

She finished her degree and now works as a special education teacher in the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts. Her son, a sophomore, rides the bus to school every day from their home in Hazel Dell and does wrestling along with after-school computer programming.

By the numbers

2018 School Housing Stability Program
  • 12 families.
  • 10 single moms.
  • 29 children.
  • 30-month rental subsidy.
  • $17,577 average annual income.
Source: Vancouver Housing Authority

“It was a lot to do, but it was what I needed to do to get better,” Baldwin said. Having housing allowed her to do all of those things, she said.

New approach

The School Housing Stability Program is the brainchild of Vancouver Housing Authority, and it differs from other rental subsidy programs by providing assistance that starts at a higher level of support and tapers down over a few years.

VHA officials say this program may be a way to introduce time limits and rental assistance that declines over time. The VHA can pursue this new approach because its status as one of 39 Move to Work housing authorities in the country allows it to bend some federal requirements and experiment with new programs and new ways of doing things.

In theory, time-limited housing subsidies reduce reliance on public assistance and financial strain on the current housing subsidy system, which U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has called “unsustainable, in both dollars and common sense.”

The Vancouver Housing Authority has struggled with the rising cost and stagnating budget of Section 8, so changing how some rental subsidies are distributed could prove financially viable.

Even so, time limits are “easier said than done,” said Jan Wichert, director of employee and resident services at the housing authority. Not every household can become self-sufficient just because they’re given a deadline. And, the housing authority’s previous foray into time-limited subsidies was shelved.

Hard lesson

In 1999, the housing authority implemented a five-year time limit on vouchers for people who weren’t elderly or disabled, which impacted about 1,000 households, said David Overbay, federal program policy manager.

“When the program was initiated, we didn’t have a real well-defined policy as far as extensions and exemptions for people from the time limit, and so we started developing that toward the end,” he said. “That was quite controversial at the time. We had huge turnouts at our public meetings for it.”

There was no real process to determine who would be a good fit for a time-limited voucher. As the five-year deadline loomed, more than 100 families faced losing their housing. Ultimately, the board decided to suspend the program in 2004.

“One-size-fits-all models don’t work, because every family is different in terms of their work-ableness, the size of their family, the skills and capacity of the adults in the family,” said Joan Caley, vice chair of Vancouver Housing Authority’s board.

Caley said the housing authority knew a blanket approach wouldn’t work when creating the School Housing Stability Program. Instead, the authority combined the screening and services of Council for the Homeless with the support of school-based Family Community Resource Centers to create what is hoped to be the right formula for temporary assistance.

How it works

The School Housing and Stability Program began housing families in mid-2015.

Homeless families are referred from schools in the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts to Council for the Homeless’ Housing Solutions Center. The council screens for families believed to be most able to overcome whatever limited issues are preventing them from having housing.

The program lasts four years. Families begin with an 80 percent subsidy — meaning the housing authority foots 80 percent of the rental bill — and begin paying more with each year. The fourth year of the program provides a 20 percent subsidy. After four years, there is no subsidy.

A second iteration of the program began this year with refined screening criteria and tighter time limits. Families in the second version receive subsidies for 2 1/2 years, starting at 70 percent and declining to 30 percent before ending altogether.

Average rental assistance per family

  • 2016: $10,267
  • 2017: $9,644

“When you look at the continuum of homeless people, as you can imagine, there are some with very few barriers and there are some with multiple barriers,” Wichert said. “Given that this is a program for a 2 1/2 -year period with a shallow subsidy and very specific case management, we want folks that we believe will be successful with that kind of support.”

Kate Budd, executive director of Council for the Homeless, said the School Housing Stability Program is similar to Rapid Re-Housing, a temporary housing assistance model used nationwide that “has very good outcomes.”

More than 80 percent of people are still housed two years after participating in Rapid Re-Housing, Budd said.

More than housing

A subsidy that gets smaller over time is supposed to help people with lower expenses at the outset while providing an incentive toward gainful employment. The program also wraps school attendance and other benchmarks into the subsidy.

In the first full year, when 27 families were enrolled, the School Housing Stability Program provided $277,211 in rental assistance. In its second year, when 24 families were enrolled, the program provided $231,450 worth of assistance. The average subsidy per family decreased by about 6 percent.

Among the 18 families still participating in the initial four-year program, average annual income is $25,800, up from $18,500 when they started.

Single mom Wendi Thornber, 46, is in her third year. Before getting housing, she and her children were staying with family.

“I got into a situation where I needed to be the sole supporter of the family, and I didn’t have any skills,” Thornber said. “I never imagined that I’d be going back to college in my 40s.”

That’s exactly what she did just a couple of months after giving birth to her youngest daughter, Tillie, and starting the School Housing Stability Program. The former homemaker went to Clark College to bring her out-of-date medical office skills up to snuff and recently graduated with associate degrees in medical coding and billing, and health informatics and information management. An externship led to a job at a PeaceHealth clinic.

“We’ve definitely progressed from where we were when we started,” Thornber said. “If it wasn’t for the housing program we wouldn’t be where we are today. … I can’t wait to see where we are two years from now.”

Average time households use Section 8

  • Work-able households: 6.87 years.
  • Senior and disabled households: 9.47 years.
  • All households: 8.58 years.
Source: Vancouver Housing Authority

While the concept of having a time-limit on rental assistance was scary at first, she said, after graduating and landing a job, she felt more confident.

“I just needed a hand up to get there,” she said.

The family of four originally squeezed into a two-bedroom condo. After that property sold, they moved to a house in Hazel Dell where everyone has their own bedroom.

Without hesitating, Thornber said she’s confident that she’ll end the program on time and be able to cover the rent without subsidy. Her 19-year-old daughter’s boyfriend, a certified caretaker, also helps pay rent.

“Everything is just falling into place,” Thornber said.

Twelve families are participating in the new, shorter version of the School Housing Stability Program. Most are headed by single moms like Thornber.

After years of tinkering, Wichert believes the screening and case management are at the appropriate spot and that the School Housing Stability Program “has the potential to serve considerably more families.”

“Our feeling is even if someone did this for 2 1/2 years and their income wasn’t where we wanted it, if we had to take that subsidy away, we’re taking it away from a family who is capable,” she said.

Attendance rises for kids in stability program

Joan Caley, vice chair of Vancouver Housing Authority's board, said some of the School Housing Stability Program's successes won't be realized until its participating children grow up to be adults who won't need public assistance to get by.

By exchanging data with Vancouver Public Schools, the housing authority found that children living in general subsidized housing were chronically absent more often than the overall school population. For instance, 39 percent of children in kindergarten through fifth grade who are in subsidized housing are chronically absent compared to 16 percent overall.

Also, The Council of Large Public Housing Authorities found that children in subsidized housing are less likely to read at grade level by the end of third grade. Both are signs that a child will be less likely to graduate from high school and may grow up to need subsidized housing like their parents.

"We weren't getting what we wanted, as far as kids' education goes, by simply providing them housing. It was very clear that we have a ways to go," said Jan Wichert, director of employee and resident services at VHA.

Attendance is hard-wired into the School Housing Stability Program's subsidy. "Not to the extent that if your children miss school you're going to be penalized, but more with an eye toward letting us know how your children are doing," Wichert said.

Catherine MacCallum-Ceballos, training and technical assistance coordinator for Family Engagement and Family Community Resource Centers at Vancouver Public Schools, said children involved in the School Housing Stability Program have made marked improvements in attendance. Before, some were attending 20 percent of the time.

According to the housing authority, 79 percent of children in the first version of the program are now attending school 90 percent or more of the time.

"I think our initial data bears out that this is successful," MacCallum-Ceballos said.

-- Patty Hastings

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
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