Innovation Ecosystem

Putting families and children first

RI Housing awarded 28 vouchers to support families and children at risk of homelessness

Photo courtesy of Gov. Dan McKee's X account.

Peter Asen, the director of the Rhode Island Field Office at the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, far right, served as the emcee at the Jan. 8 .gathering of state and local officials to announced 28 housing vouchers to youth and families in Rhode Island

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/15/24
The award by HUD for 28 housing vouchers to support youth and families at risk of homelessness in Rhode Island appears to be a sea change in the state’s recognition that more than politically charged rhetoric is required to address the ongoing crisis caused by the lack of affordable housing.
When will people stop trying to blame Rhode Islanders who are at risk of homelessness for the state’s economic problems? Will the General Assembly have the courage to raise Medicaid rates for providers by $45 million, as recommended by OHIC? How is the current crisis at St. Mary’s Home for Children related to the state’s failure to raise Medicaid rates for behavior health providers, particularly for agencies serving young girls? When will the state stop treating nonprofit agencies as “disposable vendors” and make larger infrastructure investments in the sector that represents nearly 20 percent of the state’s private workforce? How will the program the city of Providence is launching to build a community of pallet shelters be managed for those residents who are outside of Providence?
As Rhode Island communities have found their streets and homes flooded out by a series of winter rainstorms, the reality of how climate change is altering our communities in real time this winter cannot be swept under the proverbial highway bridge anymore. There is a steep price to be paid when residents’ homes are flooded, all their belongings lost, their rental apartment rendered uninhabitable.
The hard work of keeping families together and stitching communities together requires both investment and collaboration – and kindness, not pettiness.

PROVIDENCE – What a difference a year makes when we talk about homelessness. Last year at this time, the aftershocks were still being felt following the aggressive sweep by then Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt to uproot an encampment of homeless individuals in her city.  [Baldelli-Hunt was later forced to resign after the alleged misuse of city funds.]

In Providence, the temporary warming shelter cobbled together at the Cranston Street Armory by Gov. Dan McKee’s administration soon found itself overwhelmed by the demand.

The then Housing Secretary Josh Saal found himself under fire for his failure to deliver a housing plan to the General Assembly. Saal was soon to be relieved from his job.

Talk radio was aflame with incendiary rhetoric attempting to blame community agencies for the problem of homelessness, spurred on by the Governor, who said that agencies were intent on keeping the homeless “homeless” in the aftermath of a “tent-in” protest at the entrance to the State House, which ended with the protesters being evicted and the evictions being upheld in court.

Fast-forward to Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, and a news conference held at the offices of Rhode Island Housing. The news conference was held to celebrate the award of 28 federal housing vouchers worth some $350,000, to support youth and families with children at risk of homelessness.

The Congressional delegation was on hand, along with Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor and Gov. Dan McKee, to sing the praises of the award from the office of the U. S. Housing and Urban Development. The emcee for the event was none other than Peter Asen, the new field director for the Rhode Island HUD office, a long-time member of the Providence network supporting affordable, healthy housing. His previous positions had been with the Providence Housing Authority and also with the City of Providence, including a stint as director of the Healthy Communities Office.

ConvergenceRI spoke with Asen later in the week, to capture his perspective on the voucher program, the nature of the collaboration between state agencies that paved the way for the successful HUD application, as well as Asen’s insights about whether or not a shift in the political tectonic plates had occurred\ -- call it a humble rumble.

The conversation revealed the intricacies of how bureaucracies can work for the betterment of neighborhoods and communities.

ConvergenceRI: Can you describe the purpose of the voucher program?

ASEN: The purpose of the family unification program is to address this pressing need,, throughout the country, for a couple different populations.

One is families that either are at risk of potential child welfare involvement and for whom housing could help address that risk in part, as well as families where they are already involved in the child welfare system, and where housing is a barrier to reunification of that family.

In Rhode Island, I certainly can’t speak for the DCYF, but I do understand their policy to be that they do not separate families based on the lack of housing. I also understand their policy to be that once families are separated, that they cannot reunify that family without there being a stable housing situation for the children to go into.

That’s where this voucher program can play a critical role. Which is to say, obviously, you know the very difficult situation around accessing affordable housing within the state of Rhode Island, as in other parts of the country as well. 

With the housing vouchers, you have a family, particularly the very low-income families that the voucher program serve, who now have the ability to potentially find housing that they will be able to afford and then also be able to have the kids back reunified into the family.

There are actually two different populations that the vouchers can serve. That’s one of them. The other one is youth and young adults who are ages 16 to 24 and who have had prior involvement within the foster care system, in some way, and who are also homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Basically, now with Rhode Island Housing having these vouchers and DCYF as a partner, DCYF and the continuum of care [agencies] can refer individuals and families to Rhode Island Housing that fit into either of those categories.

ConvergenceRI: Where did the advocacy for this program come from? Who was in the driver’s seat?  
ASEN: Do you mean within Rhode Island?

ConvergenceRI: In Rhode Island, who was the driver in Rhode Island to make this happen?  
ASEN: You may know this. To give you the context, this program nationally has existed for some time. I am familiar with only the past five or six years, but during that time, there have been several different notices of funding opportunities that HUD has put out for this program, which have been based on Congressional authorization and Congressional funding to add to these vouchers.

For 2023, the notice for funding opportunity authorized $10 million nationwide. Which, given the scale of the size of the country, is a relatively limited amount. That made it also a very competitive application; HUD was only able to award 13 of these grants across the country. Rhode Island Housing was the applicant. They were the only awardee in the entire Northeast.

ConvergenceRI: Wow.  
ASEN: I can’t speak entirely to how the whole application came about, but Rhode Island Housing was the applicant.; the applicant has to be a housing authority. Rhode Island Housing runs a voucher program. HUD also requires the partnership with the child welfare agency and with the continuum of care.

From what I understand, Rhode Island Housing brought together the DCYF and the Rhode Island continuum of care to put this together among those agencies.

And HUD requires as part of the application that you already have an MOU among those agencies to show that that partnership is going to be in place.

ConvergenceRI: So, Rhode Island Housing could be said to be the driving advocate for this voucher program award?  
ASEN: Yes. The other people I would mention who were highlighted a little bit at the event were a couple service provider agencies who came to the table and wanted to be a part of the solution with this as well.

HUD requires that those services be in place for the youth population, but in this case, Rhode Island Housing put forward, and the state put forward that there was the opportunity for services to be provided both to the youth population as well as to the family populations.

The primary service providers who are the key partners are Foster Forward and Family Services.

ConvergenceRI: Can you talk about the importance of collaboration at the community level? How important is that collaboration?

ASEN: I think that in terms of how this program has been designed by HUD, the collaboration between these different public agencies is at the center of it.

In Rhode Island, one of the things that was mentioned at the event is that they are seeking to do is the voluntary extension of care, where they provide some support and services to youth between the ages of 18 and 21. What they are hoping to do within the state is to be able to identify youth that are going to be aging out of that program and who will then still be eligible for, based on income,, one of these vouchers as well, to make sure that they continue to have the ability for affordable housing after age 21, if they need that assistance.

ConverenceRI: How long does the voucher program last?  
ASEN: It is different for the two populations. For the families, the collaboration is clearly the case where DCYF is the one that has to refer the families. Based on the criteria we talked about before, they are the ones that have to show that this family is eligible because we know that they are either at risk of involvement in the system, or that this family is already in the system and they are ready to get their kids back, but they need housing.

The length of the voucher is different for the two populations. For a family there is no time limit on the voucher. You could lose eligibility under different circumstances, but other than that, you would have the voucher as long as it is needed.

For youth, the length of the vouchers was originally set a three years, but it has been extended up to five years. Say the youth is issued a voucher but has to return it after five years. As long as Congress continues to provide ongoing funding, Rhode Island Housing would then be able to issue that voucher to another youth or another family, the same with any kind of voucher

ConvergenceRI: In other words, ff someone ages out, or something changes, the voucher stays intact, even if the family and the youth changes?  
ASEN: And, in terms of the youth piece, it’s not really the question of aging out. You are still limited to the five years. But it is not – “Oh, you hit a certain birthday and you lose it.” You have to be between the ages of 16 and 24 when you first received it.

ConvergenceRI: What are the metrics for success for the voucher program? How will they be measured?  
ASEN: The biggest metric for success – you could ask that [of RI Housing] because they may have their own kind of metrics that they are trying to do as well, and there may be things that they put in the applications that I am not familiar with.

But the biggest metric overall for success from HUD’s standpoint is really the utilization of the voucher: How many of the vouchers are issued, how quickly can people get from issuing the voucher to leasing, and then, ultimately, how many of the vouchers are used in leasing apartments. Because, as you know, someone can receive a voucher but then they still need to find an apartment where they can use it, and then they still need to lease.

And, another piece is that you still want people to, once they have rented, to maintain that.

The overall goal for the program is that HUD is looking to reduce family homelessness, reduce homelessness among former foster youth. These are the things that we want to see reduced, but we also are aware that at this point we have awarded 28 vouchers, which is very valuable. But I also think that it is limited – it is not enough to, on its own, address the entirety of the problem.

ConvergenceRI: Can you explain what you mean when you say you have awarded 28 vouchers?  
ASEN: That was the award that Rhode Island Housing got this year. Based on kind of the estimated cost per voucher that Rhode Island Housing has in its program, the dollar amount tied to that 28 vouchers was just over $354,000.

Basically, HUD determined what were the best applications that it received, and how it could then allocate the $10 million that it has, based on the need in those various applications.

Rhode Island Housing, based on its size, was eligible to request up to 50 vouchers. But, given the number of other successful applications and limited money nationwide, HUD was only awarded 28 vouchers. The vouchers have been awarded to the agency.

It will take a little bit of time – they have to get the referral from DCYF, they have to go through the process of qualifying these families for the program, making sure that they are eligible income-wise. And, then they would issue the voucher, and then the families, based on policies, are give them a certain amount of time to be able to find an apartment with the voucher as well.

ConvergenceRI: That seems to be probably the most difficult part of the voucher program – finding the apartment where these vouchers can be used in Rhode Island. Is that accurate?  
ASEN: Yes. I will say that in terms of HUD’s evaluation of the applications, that was a piece of it, being able to see that applicants had a good plan in place to do that.

Again, I would suggest that it is something to talk with Rhode Island Housing about how they are going to do that. But I do know they have various things in place, including a housing navigator person that works with the participants. And, they do have some landlord incentives, landlord engagement, to bring landlords into their program, and things like that as well.

There are definitely some efforts in the plans to build new [affordable housing] units around the state that are specifically geared toward supporting some of those populations.

ConvergenceRI: I know that ONE Neighborhood Builders is working with Foster Forward…  
ASEN: Yes.

ConvergenceRI: …with a development in East Providence.  
ASEN: Two developments in East Providence, actually. One that is almost done, and then another that is kind of a longer-term project.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
CHRISTINE BAUMAN, HUD SPOKESWOMAN: The strong collaborations in Rhode Island made the application really competitive, which is one of the reasons why HUD awarded this money. I think that HUD is really relying on all these partners to utilize the vouchers.

ASEN: In the strategic plan of the Department for 2022-2026 that was developed under Secretary Fudge, one of the five strategic goals for the agency is to support underserved communities. A big part of that are efforts to reduce homelessness. I think that this program fits with a key strategic priority for HUD as a department, so we are very appreciative of partnerships.

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