Retooling the Homeless Crisis Response System – In Depth

Historically, people experiencing homelessness have had to navigate an uncoordinated set of services and programs to obtain assistance, with many of the available programs and services oriented towards managing the symptoms or experience of homelessness rather than providing rapid connections to stable and permanent housing that would end homelessness.  Often, permanent housing was only offered at the end of a linear process or the achievement of particular services milestones. This resulted in many individuals and families remaining in homelessness, when—for any number of reasons—they could not achieve the high barrier to entry into permanent housing.

Over the past several years however, many communities have shifted their approach, providing services that are focused on ending, not managing homelessness. Communities are retooling the homeless crisis response system to coordinate services and reorient programs to a Housing First approach that emphasizes rapid connection to permanent housing, while mitigating the negative experience of homelessness.

Along with being easily accessible and well-known throughout the community, a crisis response system must be able to outreach effectively, provide meaningful and safe emergency services, as well as a rapid pathway to permanent housing with needed services for households at-risk of or experiencing homelessness. What follows is a more in depth look into what makes an effective homeless crisis response system.

A homeless crisis response system identifies people experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness and prevents homelessness whenever possible.

In a homeless crisis response system, outreach works as part of a system to identify people at-risk of or experiencing homelessness and connects them to the housing and services they need to achieve stability. Outreach providers collaborate and coordinate with one another to ensure the whole community is covered and that everyone who requires special attention is engaged with the appropriate services. 

Outreach coordinates with Health Care for the Homeless, youth drop-in centers, and other programs that assist people experiencing homelessness, and also has “in-reach” to other settings and service sectors outside of traditional homeless services like hospitals, correctional institutions, and foster care services. Children experiencing homelessness are often identified through local schools. The Department of Education school liaisons are able to coordinate specialized services, including transportation, to help children be more successful in the school setting.

For people at risk of experiencing homelessness, prevention and diversion assistance can help them to maintain permanent housing while avoiding entry into shelters and may include a combination of financial assistance, mediation, housing location, legal assistance, or other supports – many of which can be provided by mainstream systems or programs within the community.

A homeless crisis response system provides immediate access to shelter and crisis services without barriers to entry, while stable housing and supports are being secured.

Emergency shelter with stabilization services provides immediate safety and addresses the immediate crisis needs of a household with rapid connection to permanent housing. Stabilization services include access to school or early childhood care and learning, specialized shelters and services for survivors fleeing domestic violence, benefits, and health services, including substance use and mental health services.

As part of a system, transitional housing provides short stays during which households resolve housing crises. Transitional housing can also serve as interim housing, providing an immediate place to go while permanent housing is being secured.  Longer-term transitional housing with intensive services, often characterized by up to 24 month stays after which households move, may be appropriate for certain populations such as youth or people with acute service needs. Effective transitional housing programs reduce barriers to entry and emphasize permanent housing connections.  Some communities are retooling their transitional housing portfolios to include transition in place models, which allow households to move into permanent housing with transitional supports that end when no longer needed.

A homeless crisis response system quickly connects people who experience homelessness to housing assistance and other services tailored to the unique strengths and needs of the household which enables them to achieve and maintain permanent housing.

An effective homeless crisis response system connects people to tailored housing and services including affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, which is an intervention directed to the highest need households. For many families and individuals without severe service needs, rapid re-housing  is designed to quickly exit households from homelessness and return them to permanent housing. Households receiving rapid re-housing are provided housing identification services, including landlord recruitment and ongoing engagement, rent and move in assistance, and tailored case management that connects households to necessary mainstream resources within the community. Preliminary evidence shows that, using rapid re-housing, these families can achieve stability faster and spend less time homeless.  Rapid re-housing is also a cost-effective housing intervention.

Beyond housing, individuals and families may need a range of community-based benefits and supportive services to achieve stability and improve income, education, and well-being. Crisis response systems connect people to needed community-based and mainstream services, and assist them to navigate these services.  Critical time intervention is an evidence-based approach to helping individuals and families exiting homelessness create a wrap-around system of care comprised of community-based services. 

Coordinated assessment is an important process through which a community can help individuals and families access the crisis response system in a streamlined way, have their strengths and needs assessed, and be connected to and prioritized for the housing and services they need. Coordinated assessment tools take into account the unique needs of children and their families as well as youth. When possible, the assessment provides the ability for households to be given access to the best options to address their needs, rather than being evaluated for a single program within the system. Effective coordinated assessment processes have the training and capacity to engage in a trauma-informed way and identify survivors of domestic violence. Successful systems also offer safety planning, advocacy, and access to specialized services that address the safety concerns of individuals fleeing domestic violence and their children.