SALT LAKE CITY — Tanna Orullian, 25, and her 4-year-old daughter, Sage, are busy putting up decorations and getting ready for Christmas in their room at the Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City — not in their own apartment or home. A small Christmas tree decorated with a jet plane and a miniature frog sits in the corner and draws the attention of the extroverted child.
Orullian has been in and out of shelters for the past six months after the family's house was abruptly sold by their landlord. She could not find another affordable living situation, so the Road Home has been home for the past three months. It has been much more than that, however.
"They have helped us with food, school, clothes, shoes and just about anything we need," Orullian said. "I don't think we'd be able to keep a place right now because housing is so expensive."
So Orullian will call a shelter home this holiday season as she waits for her husband's voucher program to be approved so that her family can afford housing.
Around the country, perhaps most prominently in New York, families are turning to homeless shelters for their long-term housing needs, as availability and affordability of low-income apartments and housing have dramatically declined. More than 1.6 million people lived in homeless shelters at some point in 2010, according to a report by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. The study offers a new view and possible redefinition of the word "shelter" today. "Simply put, a shelter has indeed become a home — the low-income, affordable housing of today and tomorrow," according to the study.
Experts agree that the decrease in the number of low-cost housing units contributes to the rise in homelessness. As the gap between affordable-housing need and availability increases, families continue to struggle to cement their housing situations, but the transformation of shelters can present opportunity.
A vanishing act
The gap between availability and the need for affordable housing has been steadily widening for decades. In 2009 there were 10.9 million poor renter households in America but only 5.4 million affordable rental units, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness report.
"Low-income housing is basically disappearing in America," said Ralph da Costa Nunez, institute president and CEO and the report's lead author. "Shelters are no longer temporary way stations. Shelters have become new communities for America's homeless."
If a person makes minimum wage and looks to spend 30 percent of his or her income on housing, he or she will not be able to afford housing almost anywhere in the country, said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The lack of affordable housing for low-income families is at the heart of the homeless issue, she said.
"There is a slight increase in homeless families, and data indicate these families are staying somewhat longer in the shelters nationally," she said.
Because low-income families cannot afford apartments, or get housing subsidies, they turn to shelters. These shelters are no longer temporary solutions for many homeless families, da Costa Nunez said.
"It is not so much a problem as it is a reality," he said. "Shelters have become a surrogate for low-income housing. The word 'shelter' no longer applies."
Gentrification, or the renovation of older housing into more expensive middle-class units, is also a part of the issue because the poor families become displaced, he said.
"To recapture old neighborhoods you have to push these people somewhere," he said.
Many of those people are pushed to shelters such as The Road Home. Celeste Eggert, director of development at The Road Home, said there has been a 260 percent increase in the number of families in the shelter since 2007.
"We're seeing more families than we ever have at any time in our history," she said.
Downy Zuver has been a case manager at The Road Home for seven years and said there is renovation happening at the shelter to make more room for families.
"We used to experience a huge increase in families in the winter but now it is just consistent all year-round," she said. "We are just flooded with people."
Although the average length of stay has actually gone down in recent years at The Road Home, Zuver said she still sees families staying for months or longer. This is not necessarily a bad sign, however, because many times the families are waiting for a long-term program that will solve their housing needs, she said.
Families benefit more by being housed long-term in the community rather than in shelters, Norman said. This is the goal of The Road Home.
The Road Home was involved with a program called Rapid Rehousing, funded in 2009 with $4.2 million in stimulus money, but that money is now gone, Eggert said. Rapid rehousing was successful in helping homeless families in three ways:
Helping to address the crisis that caused the homelessness.
Helping the family find an affordable apartment.
Helping the family pay by providing a rent subsidy.
"(Rapid Rehousing) can be a cheaper approach that's having a lot of success," Roman said. "We are starting to see that what families really want is to be living in the community."
The transformation of shelters can provide a new and unique approach to tackling poverty, da Costa Nunez said. Because many families are staying longer, shelters are adapting. Many now provide educational and employment opportunities for both parents and children.
"They are no longer shelters. They are transitional opportunities," he said. "They are an opportunity to deal with poverty on the front lines. Now that you have everything under one roof you can make a radical right turn in dealing with poverty."
The educational training some shelters are now providing is one of the most important opportunities for the homeless, he noted.
"Education is the only thing that will get parents better employment," he said. "If you can't get a job and you have a sixth-grade literacy level, you're not going anywhere."
The Road Home is more than just a shelter, Eggert said, as its goal is to get people housed long-term.
"A shelter is a piece of the solution to end homelessness but it's not the final piece," she said. "It's important for people to understand it's a process."
Without affordable housing, however, that end goal becomes difficult to reach, Roman said.
"The bottom line is there is not enough affordable housing, and that is driving homelessness," Roman said. "Housing is not affordable to low-income families."
As Orullian sits on her bed hugging little Sage tight, she knows they are lucky to be able to call anywhere "home."
"The shelter has been so important for us," she said. "We wouldn't have anywhere else to go."