Before the pandemic, 31,062 (PDF) young people ages 18 to 24 were experiencing homelessness on any given night. The COVID-19 pandemic makes this group especially vulnerable to homelessness and long-term unemployment, suggesting these numbers could grow substantially.
Rapid re-housing, which helps people find housing in the private market, is one solution to help end homelessness. Rapid re-housing has been successful in high-cost housing markets and among families, veterans (PDF), and people enduring unsheltered homelessness.
A growing number of communities are also using rapid re-housing to end homelessness for young people. One such city is San Francisco, California, where young people represent one in seven people experiencing homelessness. To address this problem, the city launched the Rising Up campaign—a rapid re-housing and homeless prevention program with the goal of halving homelessness among young people by 2023. The initiative helps eligible young people secure housing in the private market, provides them with a rental subsidy for up to three years. It also supports them in their housing by providing ongoing case management services and facilitating connections to other supportive service providers.
We spoke with 16 frontline, supervisory, and leadership staff involved in implementing Rising Up. Our recent report covers its first year of implementation and highlights early successes and challenges identified by staff. Other communities interested in or already implementing rapid re-housing for young people can apply these lessons to their work.
1. Providing young people with choices in their housing increases satisfaction, and supporting young people empowers them to navigate difficult housing decisions
Rising Up staff observed that prioritizing choice in the housing search process increased young people’s satisfaction with the program and their housing. To promote these outcomes, staff listened to young people’s narratives; discussed preferences for housing location, size, and amenities; and ensured their housing aligned with their preferences.
Staff indicated that young people prioritized remaining close to their support networks (rather than seeking more affordable options outside of San Francisco), as well as their privacy and independence. Many sought one-bedroom units without a roommate.
But these choices have trade-offs. Aligning housing units with young people’s preferences resulted in placement in more expensive units. When they enter the program, participants are told how much total subsidy they are eligible to receive over three years ($27,000) and are given the freedom to determine how much they use toward rent each month. Many young people—even those who are employed—have opted to cover their full month’s rent with the subsidy, which will decrease how long they can remain in the program.
Staff are worried about young people exiting the program and remaining in housing they cannot afford because of their housing choices. Though staff discuss the trade-offs of various housing options with participants to help them make the best decision, they expressed that balancing choice with long-term stability and the sustainability of the program can be difficult. We recommended the program incorporate approaches to help pursue that balance, including establishing a minimum rental requirement and promoting roommate opportunities, while elevating empowerment and choice.
2. Programs that support young people’s holistic health needs can make the biggest impact
Existing inequities have resulted in some young people—including young Black, Indigenous, and people of color; those who identify as LGBTQ; and young people with special needs or disabilities—having a higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness. Many have been involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. In San Francisco, the majority of young people experiencing homelessness reported (PDF) living with at least one health condition, and two in five had been assaulted or physically attacked in the previous year.
Rising Up was designed to leverage existing city health services. For example, when a young person is having a mental health crisis, Rising Up staff can connect them with the transition-age system of care at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. This department also provides training to Rising Up staff so they can better support young people who move outside of the city by connecting them to additional resources and helping them access new benefits.
But program staff indicated that the original program design didn’t address long-term mental and behavioral health challenges that many program participants struggled with. To address these challenges, young people needed better access to ongoing mental and behavioral health services.
3. Leveraging a strong employment partner helps young people maintain long-term stability
Rising Up’s initial design provided employment services and connections and helped young people increase their income, but the final program model did not include a service partner focused exclusively on employment. Rising Up staff said they believe it’s important to have a dedicated employment partner but that it’s hard to secure because San Francisco lacks a strong network of employment services.
Because rapid re-housing is a time-limited intervention, focusing on increasing young people’s income is important. Securing employment, in addition to receiving financial coaching, helps young people increase their financial independence and stability beyond their participation in the program. In the long-term, these connections could help decrease returns to homelessness, improve financial independence, and support personal growth.
Amid rising housing instability caused by the pandemic, young people experiencing homelessness need solutions now more than ever. Rapid re-housing is one promising idea to help young people quickly exit homelessness and move into stable housing. However, no evaluations have studied the effectiveness of the model specifically for young people and at the scale of Rising Up. In the coming year, we will be monitoring Rising Up’s outcomes related to housing stability, employment, education, mental and behavioral health, and participant satisfaction.