By Lawrence G. Haynes, Jr., Executive Director of Mercy House, a faith-inspired housing and service provider for people experiencing homelessness in Orange County, CA.
I have been the Executive Director of Mercy House since its beginning, almost 25 years ago. Like many homeless service agencies, we have followed a common growth trajectory: We started with transitional housing, later developed our own “continuum” running programs that range from prevention, emergency shelter and services, and permanent housing facilities and strategies. We now serve, shelter, and house thousands of individuals a year, and like most of you, all with high success rates with our clients ending their homelessness.
However, a few years ago we were faced with a growing number of families in one of our programs, which prompted me to say to some of my staff, “You know what? I think we overestimate the value of services.”
“But services are at the core of what we do,” replied one of my staff members. “It’s what everyone does in this county. It’s what the funders want to hear about and support.”
“I know,” I continued, “But I’ve been looking at the research, doing a lot of thinking….and it doesn’t always make sense. I think something happens when a person is housed. I think there is something magical that happens in housing…in your own room. The daydreams I used to have when I was a boy. Did I ever tell you about the time (heh-heh)…?”
“Oh, no,” I could hear them groan. At this point I could sense their discomfort, hoping to God that I wouldn’t finish that sentence.
And so I didn’t. Instead I said, “So we have all of these families in our emergency shelters. We can’t get them into transitional housing because they don’t meet the eligibility requirements of other shelters, and even our own transitional program staff is reluctant to take them. Man, that ticks me off! Let’s do this. Let’s skip the transitional housing step. Let’s do whatever it takes to get these families placed in permanent housing, right away – rapid re-housing, shared housing, good fit, bad fit, whatever. Let’s get them placed.”
“But, we’re setting them up for failure, these families need support. They need case management,” some protested. Others were more on board with my plan.
“I love it! I like that we take chances,” one staff member said. “Let’s be honest, housing is the end game anyway. Why not get there faster? Besides, what choice do we have?”
Acknowledging the concerns, I said, “I know we don’t have funding to provide supportive services or long-term rental assistance, but let’s just do it and see what happens.” And so we did. We took 140 families off the streets. They were not “high functioning” enough for transitional shelters, but within 40 days we placed them into permanent housing…and offered no further support.
Our staff was divided; we lost support from funders and some political leaders, and even some of our friends took a metaphorical step away from us during this time – all certain that the majority of these families would simply return to us. So, what happened? Four years later, only 14 families have returned to us, and five of those regained permanent housing, never to return. I know that it is difficult to move away from a transitional or service-centered approach.
Out of good intentions, we naturally want to make sure that our people are “ready” to move on, and that they will be successful. I get that. That comes from a sense of compassion. Ethically speaking though, we have a responsibility to not only the person in front of us but also to the many more needing our help, but are left out because our programs are full. Therefore, we must act more quickly. I ask that we believe. I ask that we believe that we can end homelessness. I propose that the correct path is not us “fixing” people first, but allowing people the freedom and dignity of “fixing” themselves within their own homes. I ask that we believe in the magic of housing.