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Lack of affordable housing has forced many low-income families to turn to shelters

Published: Saturday, Dec. 22 2012 11:05 p.m. MST

Tanna Orullian hugs her daughter Sage Mortensen in their room at the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. Around the country 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.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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.

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