By Jamey Burden, Director of Housing, Programs & Policy at Community of Hope
When Community of Hope began working with Ms. M, a mother of one, we were concerned that she had been living in a large, congregate shelter in Washington, DC for 14 months. Long shelter stays have a way of sapping people’s energy, hope, and confidence. When Ms. M was transferred to an apartment-style shelter run by Community of Hope, we engaged with her around the possibility of trying rapid re-housing. Initially needing a few weeks to get over some fears of failure, Ms. M finally decided to pursue rapid re-housing. She began working with our rapid re-housing case manager and our housing specialist to locate an apartment.
At the same time, she secured a part-time job at Popeye’s Restaurant. Soon after, a full-time job became available at Wendy’s Restaurant, but Ms. M could not accept it due to her problems finding childcare. In the meantime, Ms. M moved into a one-bedroom apartment. Shortly after move-in, she was able to figure out her childcare challenges (with the help of her case manager), and she was able to secure the full-time position at Wendy’s. When she exited the rapid re-housing program, Ms. M was working concurrently at Wendy’s and Popeye’s. Fully two years later, she has not returned to shelter. Ms. M’s story is not a glamorous one. She has not bought her own home yet or gained a high-paying job. But she is no longer homeless. I am also happy to say that this story is not an uncommon one, either.
Rapid re-housing is working. And it’s working in Washington, DC, which, in terms of housing unaffordability and poverty rates, is among the most challenging places in the country to live. One hundred and seventeen families and individuals have exited Community of Hope’s rapid re-housing program since 2011 (50 in 2011, 25 in 2012, and 42 in 2013), and 93 percent of them have not returned to the DC shelter system as of June 30, 2013. The average length of stay in the program is 10 months. Among the families we have served so far in 2013, only 36 percent were employed when they entered the rapid re-housing program; most – 71 percent – were receiving TANF; and 34 percent had long-term disabilities.
Early on in our implementation, there was a strong collective impulse to be very cautious with rapid re-housing. We offered program assistance only to those with at least moderate, reliable income. Not anymore. We have expanded enrollment in the program. A day of shelter costs $126 per family; a day of rapid re-housing costs $66. Which would you choose? Here’s what we know: families do better in their own housing. In shelter, family and social networks fray, mental health declines, substance use goes up, domestic violence goes up, and children’s performance in school goes down.
I am happy to report that our shelter staff is fully on-board with the Housing First/rapid re-housing model that we have been implementing for the past three years. Community of Hope’s average length of shelter stay has gone from nearly 1.5 years, to less than 6 months. Our shelter staff’s commitment and compassion for the families we serve is driving that length of stay number down still further. Here’s an even more important statistic: during that same three-year period, our permanent housing retention rate for those leaving our shelter went up. Rapid re-housing is not for everyone.
Using OrgCode’s Service Prioritization and Decision Assistance Tool, Community of Hope is collaborating with the Transitional Housing Corporation and the DC government to assess families across the shelter system in the city. Among those assessed so far about 300, or roughly 8 percent are scoring for needing one-time assistance to move into housing (first month’s rent, security deposit, and housing listings), 85 percent are scoring for needing rapid re-housing assistance (services and rental assistance for between 4 and 12 months), and 7 percent are scoring for needing permanent supportive housing. For those prioritized for rapid re-housing, we begin by talking about housing options and preferences. We look at strengths such as skills, work history, family support, and social networks. We also look at conditions such as criminal records, problems with rental history, credit problems, and lack of income, which are typically immediate barriers to accessing housing. As we work toward mitigating or removing those barriers, we simultaneously try to help rapid re-housing participants find the right match for housing. Our employment team is also involved, early on, helping participants make the connection to employment, better employment, and/or job training and adult education.
Two related findings from our three years of implementing rapid re-housing:
(a) never underestimate people, and certainly never underestimate people experiencing homelessness; and
(b) stay focused on the rapid re-housing model, including a progressive engagement approach.
Progressive engagement means that we avoid making assumptions about what people need to get into and retain housing; we take things one step at a time, and base further assistance decisions on the immediate need. This helps us avoid jumping to conclusions about the people we serve, and it helps us save scarce resources for those who most need them. Some families may need to come back to us to receive further assistance down the road, but so far, we are finding that a lot are like Ms. M. With a little of our help, continued encouragement, and a lot of their own hard work and ingenuity, people are beating homelessness with rapid re-housing assistance.
Community of Hope‘s mission is to improve the health and quality of life of homeless and low-income families in Washington, DC. In 2012, Community of Hope served almost 270 families who had experienced homelessness, through its shelter, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and rapid re-housing programs. Community of Hope was the winner of the 2012 Washington Post Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management. Visit www.communityofhopedc.org for more information.