04/09/2013 - Using Resources Effectively and Efficiently to Permanently End Homelessness for All Families

Let’s think back to 1992.  Windows 3.1 was released, My Cousin Vinny won an Academy Award, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” topped the music charts, a first class stamp cost $.29, and the HUD McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act was reauthorized for the first time. Much has changed since then.    

Seventeen years later, the McKinney Vento Act was again reauthorized as HEARTH, calling for significant changes to the service delivery system to address the dynamic needs of homeless populations across the country. As service providers, funders, and community leaders, we have been given a choice. We can maintain the status quo, or we can rise to the challenge of implementing better ideas and improving our practice. Today we have new analyses, a wealth of information on what works (and what does not), and many new interventions to help individuals and families experiencing homelessness. We have both the capacity and the obligation to build stronger, more effective programs for the vulnerable people who are relying on us to do so. 

Our agency, UMOM New Day Centers, chose to fully embrace the paradigm shifts introduced by HUD and USICH. We did so because we were inspired to think differently, act more strategically, and work smarter. With children living on the streets, we could not justify continuing with “business as usual.” We embraced the combination of HEARTH, significant community needs, and the economic crisis as an opportunity to redesign and realign our service delivery system. Three key questions helped us remain intentional and focused.      

Are we intensely focused on permanent solutions?

Our system redesign began with strategic planning, inclusively involving staff from the Executive Team to the Case Managers. During the process, we abandoned our 53 discrete performance quality indicators and adopted seven holistic performance outcome measures tied directly to permanent solutions. Specifically, we set goals to reduce lengths of stay and returns to homelessness, and increase exits to permanent housing, income, employment, education levels, and community connectedness. We called for an “all hands on deck” approach among staff to impact performance in these areas. Within the first year, we reduced the length of stay by 20 percent, increased exits to permanent housing by 5 percent, and doubled the number of families leaving with employment. What gets measured gets done, so it’s critical to measure that which truly matters. 

Are we ending homelessness for all families?

Isn’t it ironic that the families with the most complicated barriers to housing are the very ones our service delivery system traditionally fails? At UMOM, our mission is not to end homelessness for those who are functional enough to end it themselves. Services are based on need. Period. We had serious discussions about minimizing eligibility criteria to ensure we are serving as many people as possible, particularly those most in need.  We welcome families with substance use issues, multiple shelter stays, criminal backgrounds, and limited or no employability. We are committed to ending family homelessness in our community, and that means working with all families, especially the ones who face the greatest challenges.

We’re also committed to working with families even when they don’t follow our guidelines or meet our expectations. We don’t release families to the streets. Instead of expecting the families to conform to what we have available, we strive to adjust the programs to meet the needs of the families. Their challenges are our challenges. Their failure is our failure. And their success is our success. 

To meet our new goals, we had to realign our internal resources.  We’d always employed Crisis Counselors but we realized it was unrealistic to expect temporary, informal crisis counseling to have a meaningful, long term impact. It made more sense to connect our residents with community-based counselors who could provide services indefinitely. So, we eliminated the Crisis Counselor positions, lowered the case management ratio to 1:15 families, strengthened clinical support to our case management teams, and hired a Housing Specialist for each team. We partnered with a community agency for an on-site Job Developer and added a full time Adult Education Coordinator to help the 60 percent of our adults without high school diplomas or GEDs. Our personnel priorities now match our outcome measures, and retention is 93 percent.   

Are we using every resource we have as effectively and efficiently as possible?

UMOM New Day Centers currently operates 11 different shelter and housing interventions for families experiencing homelessness. We are fortunate to have many tools in our toolbox, and we use each resource in a very strategic way. Just as educators strive to provide the “least restrictive environment” for students with individualized education plans, our goal is to provide a setting as close to permanent housing as possible, as soon as possible. It is a version of progressive engagement, informed by assessment. We refer to our process as “housing triage.”

Upon our first engagement, if we determine a family can be diverted from shelter then we will help facilitate the diversion. If they do not need to enter shelter, they should not. When diversion is not an option, we use a combination of assessment tools and common sense to determine the minimal intervention appropriate to permanently end their homelessness. 

If the family’s barriers to housing are low to moderate or can be reasonably resolved within a few months, the smaller, less expensive interventions (such as emergency shelter or rapid rehousing) are worth a try. For families with moderate to severe barriers to housing that cannot reasonably be resolved within an emergency shelter stay or 3-9 months of rental assistance, transitional housing might be a good starting point. If a family has utilized our services multiple times and keeps returning to shelter, Family Critical Time Intervention is attempted. And if all else fails, permanent supportive housing just may be the answer. Being the most expensive and extensive intervention, it is reserved only for the families who truly need long-term or permanent rental subsidies and supportive services in order to remain stably housed – by our estimate, literally 2-5 percent of the families experiencing homelessness. 

Our UMOM New Day Center team certainly does not have all of the answers. But we are moving forward, embracing change, and always seeking opportunities to learn and grow. Our families are counting on us. The community is relying on us. And with less than an 8 percent rate of returns to homelessness, we’re doing a lot right. 

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