Transitional Housing?

For more than a decade, in the role of policy-development, as a service practitioner and as a researcher, I have been investigating and trying to understand the allure of Transitional Housing. I have been interested in the outputs and outcomes that Transitional Housing can demonstrate relative to other housing models. I have been interested in the planning processes used for Transitional Housing – from the needs analysis to understanding the population to be served to securing financing to the urban planning and architectural features of Transitional Housing. From a system perspective I have been working to comprehend where it fits in, for which populations and under what circumstances.

Throughout my travels I have seen different models of Transitional Housing and different approaches to delivering services in Transitional Housing. I have seen congregate Transitional Housing – some for individuals, some for families, and some blended – that range in size from a handful of units to hundreds of units. I have seen scattered site Transitional Housing through head-lease arrangements. I have seen rented motel rooms that service providers have structured and labeled as Transitional Housing. I have visited some Transitional Housing that has a very fixed length of stay such as 6 months, 1 year or 2 years; and have also visited some Transitional Housing where people can stay indefinitely so long as they are progressing towards a future transition (though what that means is, in my experience, rarely defined). I have seen population-specific Transitional Housing such as for veterans, youth, single-parent households leaving domestic violence, Aboriginal persons, people in addiction recovery and chronically homeless persons – to name a few. I have seen some Transitional Housing that has 24/7 staffing, some with resident managers, some with daytime supports and some that has staff drop by a few times a week or on an as-needed basis. The multiple interpretations of what constitutes Transitional Housing can make it difficult to truly understand what the housing model is intending to be and what it is trying to achieve.

I find the hard evidence to support Transitional Housing – regardless of the model or population or size or length of stay or staffing intensity – hard to come by. The conclusion I have come to is that Transitional Housing isn’t all that necessary when compared to the alternatives. Let me make my case…

I am a skeptical empiricist. I look for data and evidence to guide my decision-making and the recommendations that I make to communities. I have never seen a peer reviewed piece of literature that proves people get better long-term housing outcomes through Transitional Housing than moving directly into permanent housing with supports. In fact, just about every piece of literature I have seen – whether it is Tsemberis’ work comparing Housing First to usual housing and treatment processes or Gerstel et al. with their awesomely titled article “The Therapeutic Incarceration of Homeless Families” – the argument is pretty clear that prolonging people’s involvement in “the system” is not helpful and doesn’t produce better housing outcomes. Read between the lines and I think Culhane et al. in “Testing a Typology of Family Homelessness Based on Patterns of Public Shelter Utilization in Four U.S. Jurisdictions: Implications for Policy and Program Planning” also provides a useful perspective on Transitional Housing.

In my quest for knowledge I am always open to new information to challenge and refine my thinking. If you know of any published studies that indicate that Transitional Housing is fantastic when compared to moving into permanent housing (including Permanent Supportive Housing), please let me know.

I know there is an argument that some providers and policy-makers have been known to use, which is that some people are just not “housing ready” and therefore Transitional Housing is needed to help make them “housing ready”. I have difficulty with this line of thinking. First of all, we never asked these folks if they were “homeless ready” which I think would be a much more difficult threshold of preparedness to meet. Cheekiness aside, what is it that we plan to model, teach, share in a Transitional Housing environment that we cannot do in Permanent Housing? Why is it that we want people to demonstrate a certain amount of success only to require them to move if they do well? And why would we want yet another environment that has a bunch of rules that will likely result in people being asked to leave if they don’t comply with them?

There is a pervasive opinion that the continuum approach to service delivery works – that homeless people should move from outreach to shelter, shelter to transitional housing and from transitional housing to permanent housing. Each is a step that has its own set of rules and requirements. Ultimately permanent housing is a reward for success along the way. I have a hard time using a basic human need as a reward – especially when the evidence to support the success of a continuum is non-existent and there is very clear evidence that people can move directly from the street into housing. While the continuum approach is the dominant service paradigm (still) in many communities, it too lacks empirical evidence to support it.

From a cost perspective, I have never seen a business case that supports Transitional Housing as being fiscally wise. I recently looked at some data shared on a sample community’s cost analysis on individuals and families that showed the cost of exit from Transitional Housing to Permanent Housing to be 8 times more costly than Rapid Re-housing into Permanent Housing and 2 times more costly than Emergency Shelter into Permanent Housing. It is cheaper to move people directly into Permanent Housing and support them than it is to create an intervening Transitional Housing step.

There is also the matter of successful outputs from Transitional Housing. So many communities I have worked with have the same question – transition to where? Good question. I have reviewed oodles of data in different communities and it breaks my heart the number of times people move from Transitional Housing to an unknown destination or back into homelessness because their time was up or they couldn’t follow the rules in the Transitional Housing. When there have been enough data points to undertake a longitudinal analysis, those individuals and families that have had Transitional Housing stays tend to demonstrate even more bleak longer-term housing retention outcomes than their Permanent Housing counterparts.

On a tour through Minnesota a few months back there were some strong advocates for Transitional Housing that said it was necessary because it provided a non-shelter place for families to go to while sorting out income so that the family could move into Permanent Housing. In this case, I can appreciate the logic of their argument. I appreciate that they wanted a non-shelter environment for families. But it also seems to me that a rather expensive Transitional Housing infrastructure was put into place to address what was actually an access to income supports issue. I can’t help but wonder if the same efforts applied to making adjustments to the income support system or in providing bridge financing in permanent housing by way of a short-term rent supplement wouldn’t be better than the capital and operating costs required for the Transitional Housing.

In other communities I have heard that Transitional Housing is required because there is a lack of housing in the community that an individual or family can otherwise afford. In this instance I can see how Transitional Housing is being used as a band-aid, short-term approach to provide time-limited housing, but I don’t at all see how it is addressing the issue of market affordability. What happens when housing doesn’t become more affordable while people are staying in Transitional Housing? Transitional Housing, as best as I can tell from research, was never intended to address broader economic and market issues. In this case the Transitional Housing seems to be used more as a short-term affordable housing opportunity that ultimately isn’t sustainable. Wouldn’t the resources put into Transitional Housing be better used creating more permanent affordable housing or rent supplements or vouchers for people to access housing in the private market?

More and more communities, whether it is through their 10 Year Plan or preparation for the HEARTH Act, are moving towards a systems-orientation in how they look at the array of services in their community. I applaud this and have been able to work with many communities in making some of the necessary design changes for their system to be successful. In every single one of these assignment the discussion has come up regarding the role of Transitional Housing. No doubt there are some communities that remain conflicted about Transitional Housing. Truthfully, I think this conflict is healthy as it is encouraging an important discussion on how Transitional Housing fits with trying to end homelessness…how it fits with reducing length of homelessness…how it fits with reducing recidivism…how it fits with increasing access to jobs and income (in those circumstances where there is a specific income threshold that cannot be surpassed to be eligible for the Transitional Housing)…

I don’t think proponents of Transitional Housing are deliberately trying to make the situation for individuals and families worse. I think in many instances service providers were following a funding opportunity to create Transitional Housing and were persuaded by the availability of funds that it must be a good thing to do. I don’t think Transitional Housing providers have malicious intent. I believe they are passionate about helping people. I appreciate and respect the hard work they have put into creating and operating the Transitional Housing, and that devotion is not lost if the organization is willing to look at a different way of doing things.

I encourage service providers with Transitional Housing to look at ways of converting their Transitional Housing into Permanent Supportive Housing, Permanent Affordable Housing or else looking at ways to allow people to transition in place. In all my years as a practitioner I have never seen anything done in Transitional Housing (especially congregate Transitional Housing) that can’t be done just as well, if not better (and certainly for a lot less money) than moving people directly into permanent housing and then wrapping supports around them.

Iain De Jong is the President & CEO of OrgCode Consulting, Inc. and has assisted several transitional housing providers in converting their housing into permanent supportive housing.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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