Every day, Idahoans across the state are at risk of eviction and homelessness. Many of their overwhelming situations are all too familiar — a parent’s work hours are cut, a costly car repair, an expensive child medical emergency, or a family is priced out of their apartment when rent is raised. These are the types of unforeseen crises that can send households quickly down the spiral of eviction and homelessness.
As the executive director of Jesse Tree, a nonprofit that provides support and financial assistance to families facing eviction, I meet these families daily.
Prior to moving back to Idaho, I worked with people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. Most days I was frustrated beyond belief. Ten-thousand people were living outside, and hundreds more were evicted monthly. Homelessness is a purgatory that’s difficult to leave. With an eviction record and no place to shower, sleep or do laundry, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain an income while trying to find a home. I returned home to Idaho to take on the task of preventing homelessness from happening to people and families in the first place. Across the nation, millions of dollars are dedicated to helping people experiencing homelessness regain and retain stable housing when we know homelessness could have been avoided earlier upstream. In a market with a 1% rental vacancy rate, rising rents and stagnated wages, Ada County must focus on prevention now.
In Ada County, 1,401 families became homeless for the first time in 2018. Once a family becomes homeless, it costs up to $10,000 to re-house them, and each person experiencing homelessness costs over $53,000 annually in supportive and emergency services.
We should invest in prevention by supporting families experiencing financial shocks that threaten their housing stability: providing them with counseling, legal representation, wrap-around support and rental assistance as needed. A small amount of assistance up front is much more cost-effective than the devastating social and economic consequences of eviction and homelessness. On average, all it takes to keep a family in their home is $800 in rental assistance. Interventions such as crisis counseling, mediation and employment assistance are also successful. In Ada County, 98% of clients assisted with prevention interventions over the past two years remained in their homes since receiving assistance.
Access to stable affordable homes is also key to preventing homelessness. Households paying more than 30 percent of their income are housing cost-burdened, and these families often must choose among paying for rent, healthy food, medical care and other necessities. As of February, Idaho had a shortage of more than 23,000 affordable and available rentals for Idaho renters with extremely low incomes.
Despite the feelings of hopelessness and frustration I experienced while working with people experiencing homelessness in California, it is not too late for Idaho to avoid the same mistakes. Idaho can still end homelessness by focusing on preventive policies and interventions, but we must act quickly.