The blog of the Urban Institute
November 22, 2019

LeBron James’s Foundation Is Building Transitional Housing at the I Promise School. But It Can Go Further to Help Families

November 22, 2019

Last year, LeBron James and the LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF) opened the I Promise School that aimed to help families with children experiencing poverty by supporting the needs of the whole family.

Now the school is expanding its support to house families in need. Earlier this month, the LJFF announced plans to transform a nearby apartment building into transitional housing for families in crisis in the I Promise community. The I Promise Village, located five blocks from the school, will help families experiencing homelessness or in need of shelter and will provide supportive services.

I Promise should be commended for recognizing the importance of stable housing to healthy families and successful students. But although transitional housing can help some families, evidence shows it may not be the best crisis intervention for families experiencing homelessness. Other strategies can go further.

Housing matters for families

James correctly identifies housing as a barrier to success for students. In a statement to USA Today, James said, “Initially, our work was focused on helping these kids earn an education. But we’ve found that it is impossible to help them learn if they are struggling to survive, if they are hungry, if they have no heat in the freezing winter, if they live in fear for their safety.”

Many families in Akron and Summit County, Ohio, are experiencing the stress James describes. In Summit County, 49 households and 102 children were homelessness in 2018, according to the latest point-in-time count (PDF). And 30 percent of families in the county are rent burdened.

The importance of stable housing to education is clear. Good housing ensures access to high-quality schools and limits disruptive school changes. Stable housing has positive effects on attendance and academic achievement (PDF). James experienced these effects firsthand; he and his mother moved half a dozen times when he was in the fourth grade, and he missed 83 days of school that year.

Transitional housing may help some families, but it’s likely not the best crisis intervention

That the LJFF recognizes the importance of housing is a great first step, but transitional housing is not always the best solution. Transitional housing gives families temporary housing and intensive services focused on increasing well-being and self-sufficiency. But many families need longer-term support, and some evidence shows that families prefer other interventions that have had greater success at lower cost.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Family Options Study, families in transitional housing did not see improved outcomes on key measures like education and employment compared with families who sought assistance through usual publicly available services. Transitional housing was also more expensive than some other promising interventions, such as rapid rehousing or housing subsidies. Only emergency shelter was more expensive.

Short stays in transitional housing do not change the realities for many low-income families who have limited earning power. When families stay longer in transitional housing, they have greater levels of educational attainment and employment and greater likelihood of stable housing when they exit. But even after families left transitional housing, they were still dependent on housing subsidies to find affordable housing.

Families also seem to prefer other forms of housing assistance. In the Family Options Study, 43 percent of families who were offered transitional housing declined to enter services. When asked, families preferred the portability and independence of subsidies over the requirement of living in the location and housing units required by the transitional housing program. Housing subsidies can serve more families and provide longer-term assistance for the same price as transitional housing.

Transitional housing programs are also more likely to block families from being eligible based on employment, substance use, and mental health criteria. Subsidies and rapid rehousing programs in the Family Options Study often followed a Housing First approach, eliminating these criteria for entry into housing services.

Solutions to housing instability that work

The LJFF can go further and move beyond reducing barriers to use housing as a platform for student success. To effectively provide housing stability to I Promise families, the LJFF should differentiate between families in need of crisis intervention and families in need of intensive services.

Some families need assistance after a crisis, such as an eviction or a family emergency. Rapid rehousing and long-term subsidies are a more cost-effective way to address family homelessness than transitional housing. And families prefer them to transitional housing. Rapid rehousing moves families out of homelessness quickly with short-term financial assistance and provides supportive services like case management services and housing search assistance. To ensure stable housing after rapid rehousing programs, the LJFF should consider long-term subsidies, a proven tool to prevent future homelessness.

Other families may need the type of wraparound support and housing that the I Promise Village can offer. But this support should be permanent, not temporary. Permanent supportive housing, intended for populations who need intensive services to remain housed, could work. Supportive housing has decreased chronic homelessness and improved outcomes for families involved in the child welfare system. I Promise Village could include permanently subsidized units and target some of those units to families with many barriers who need permanent supportive services.

The LJFF is taking important steps to recognize the importance of housing to successful families and students. Transitional housing could help some families in the I Promise Community, but other solutions may do more for a lower cost, such as permanently affordable housing. For families in crisis, the foundation should consider rapid rehousing coupled with housing subsidies. For families with multiple barriers, the foundation could use the I Promise Village to extend transitional housing assistance into permanent supportive housing.

LeBron James during the opening ceremonies of the I Promise School on July 30, 2018 in Akron, Ohio. The School is a partnership between the LeBron James Family foundation and Akron Public Schools. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images).

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