Every night, homeless shelters across the country turn away thousands of people seeking beds -- and not just because they're full, though they often are.
The shelters are practicing something known as "diversion," a controversial strategy hailed by supporters as an effective means of helping homeless families in a time of rampant homelessness, and scorned by critics as a fancy term masking a deep and complicated problem. With homeless shelters often at capacity, and with Congress beginning to consider President Barack Obama's budget recommendations for Fiscal Year 2013, advocates for the homeless are split over whether the new budget should include funding for this approach.
How does diversion work? Say a mother shows up at a shelter with two kids, saying she lost her apartment and needs a place to stay. Workers trained in the diversion model would ask the mom if she's exhausted all other options: Any relatives she and the kids could stay with? Any friends? Could they stay at their house for a few more days? If she's behind on her rent, could she borrow some money or find some other way to rustle up cash?
If the shelter is truly her only option, the worker might try to immediately get the family into a short-term apartment. Anything to avoid taking them into the shelter.
That's the underlying philosophy of diversion. The shelter should be the last possible resort.
When it works, diversion saves shelters beds and money, and with the homeless population straining the capacity of the shelter system, both those things are badly needed. But it isn't free: programs need funding to train staff, and to move people into apartments when the situation calls for it. And so, as Congress begins to tussle over the president's proposed budget, some advocates for the homeless are pitching diversion to lawmakers, while others warn it's bound to make the homeless crisis worse.
Diversion is part of a larger strategy often referred to as "rapid re-housing," at the center of a debate that has divided advocates for years. For about a decade, many advocates have argued that the best way to reduce homelessness is to get people housed as quickly as possible, even if they aren't ready to support themselves outside of a shelter. Put them in an apartment first, they say, and deal with their other needs later.
One of the main advocates of this approach -- and for diversion -- is the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Steve Berg, an executive for the organization, described diversion as an extension of the rapid-housing philosophy. "It's immediate re-housing," he said. "Instead of going to the homeless shelter, you're diverted from the homeless shelter right back into real housing."
The funding for such programs is managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The president's budget proposal, unveiled Monday, calls for a $1.6 billion increase for the department, to a total of $44.8 billion. Berg said the alliance is pleased with that recommendation, and is pressuring Congress to approve it. He sounded optimistic.
"These are really effective programs," he said of diversion and rapid re-housing. "And they really work and are cost-effective and have a long history of bipartisan support."
A number of cities have adopted diversion as part of a strategy for reducing family homelessness, including New York, Minneapolis, and Cleveland. Some have seen their homeless populations decline, which supporters cite as evidence of the effectiveness of the approach.
One of the most widely cited success stories is that of Columbus, Ohio. Barbara Poppe, now the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal program that coordinates the work of several government agencies, ran a non-profit group that managed the city's homeless shelters starting in the '90s. "When families called the shelter, the only thing the shelter could give them was shelter," Poppe said. "We trained the shelter to talk with the family about their particular situation, identify what resources they had in the family and in their community, and help them avoid entering the shelter system." Those practices became known "diversion activities," and according to Poppe, they led to a steep drop in family homelessness.
Critics dispute such claims. The only reason homelessness appears to have declined in such places, they say, is because the system turns away people who should really be considered homeless. "The truth of the matter is we only have enough affordable housing stock to house one out of every 10 homeless people," said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "The question is, what do you do with the other 90 percent? When the music stops, what do you do with the other chairs? Nine out of 10 people are either out in the cold, or in a motel, or they throw their hands in the air and say, 'To hell with all of you,' and move back with a batterer, move back to someone who assaulted them or move back into an unhealthy living environment.
"Diversion means you're no longer part of the large number that the government needs to be held responsible for," Donovan continued. "You fall off the radar screen."
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