Experts Hear From Communities, Highlight Important Elements of HEARTH Act

Recent legislative changes have been made to the HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act following its original passage in 2009. In order to understand the impact of these changes, USICH spoke with Norm Suchar, Director of the Center for Capacity Building at National Alliance to End Homelessness and Michelle Budzek, President of Partnership Center, ltd. (PCL). Both Mr. Suchar and Ms. Budzek’s organizations provide technical assistance to help communities and service providers reduce and end homelessness with the most effective strategies. The Center for Capacity Building at National Alliance to End Homelessness leads the dissemination of solutions that reduce homelessness in communities across the country, and works with communities and providers to implement these solutions. The Center accelerates the adoption of solutions that are cost effective, data driven, and that will ultimately accomplish the goal of ending homelessness. Partnership Center, ltd.’s  primary work is with units of government, community groups, and non-profit organizations that plan, fund, or provide housing and services to people experiencing homelessness. The Partnership Center is structured into three divisions: Technical Assistance, Information Technology, and Administration.

In these interviews, USICH spoke with these two experts about what they heard from communities about the changes to the HEARTH Act, and what they believe are now the ways these changes can help us best reach our collective goals in Opening Doors.

Norm Suchar spent time listening to providers’ reactions to changes in the HEARTH Act through his work at the Center. He describes the initial reactions of providers to these changes in four buckets:

  1. The unknown unknowns. At the onset, providers didn’t know exactly what was happening with HEARTH and how it would change their programming. They had a piecemeal understanding, so they did not feel comfortable moving forward with planning without concrete specifics about what was expected of them. Release of the interim rule helped clarify their understanding of the changes to HEARTH, but many providers were waiting for the NOFA to clarify expectations completely.
  2. Performance measures. Providers understand the new focus of HEARTH on outcomes and performance, but they didn’t know how it would be measured or implications of those measures.
  3. Expectations of transitional housing programs. Many providers believed that they would be expected to change their models, in addition to a possible change in populations served. Some providers even had concerns about being defunded. 
  4. Accountability. Providers were hesitant to be held accountable for things they thought to be outside their control. When it comes to providing housing services, more specifically helping clients maintain housing, providers must rely on other people like landlords, clients, and the employers of clients. Providers come from the perspective that they cannot “control” all these parties because they are individual and interact with one another in different ways, and the providers were worried that they alone would be held responsible for joint outcomes with these parties.    

Based on the above reactions of providers, it is clear that the changes to the HEARTH Act stirred some confusion. However, Suchar emphasized that providers had questions and concerns, but not in a negative way. The providers’ questions and concerns came from a place of wanting to learn and understand the changes to HEARTH and what those changes meant in their role as provider. From his conversations with providers, Suchar reflects that, “people see potential, but are proceeding cautiously” with making large program changes. Now that the NOFA has been released and program changes are delineated, what needs to happen moving forward is much clearer. 

So what do the changes in HEARTH really mean for providers? To both Suchar and Michelle Budzek, the changes present new opportunities to maximize efforts to prevent and end homelessness. Both Suchar and Budzek note some of these new opportunities result from the new focus on some very important functions:

  • A process for renewal grants that emphasizes doing what works and not just more of the same;
  • Data, outcomes and performance management;
  • An increased ability to do much more rapid rehousing in communities;
  • Building coordinated assessments integrated with a coordinated intake system; and
  • A new focus on integrating youth providers in data collection and planning, starting with this year’s PIT Count

A New Process for Renewal Grants

Before changes were made to the HEARTH Act, as long as a provider was complying with the law they usually got their renewal. Suchar explained that the changes made to HEARTH prevent this method of “automatic” renewal moving forward. He said that in order to make real change 

we have to look at existing grants and identify how to retool them, not just continue  renewing projects year after year. Whether it’s shifting budget lines, or retooling of the  program. There are a lot of places where all grants are not performing well, and we should look  to reallocating from one provider to another if necessary.

With the focus in this year’s NOFA on just that, funding strategies and programs that achieve better results on HEARTH performance measures will take center stage.

Data, Outcomes and Performance Management

With the new HEARTH Act regulations, there’s a shift to not just measuring program outcomes, but community outcomes. We are measuring the whole experience for a person, not for the individual organizations. To see a clearer picture of an individual’s journey through a community’s system, accurate data on how individuals fare in programs is essential. Suchar firmly stated, “There is no one that succeeds without good data. It’s always a good decision to invest in data, but it can be hard to see when you have such a high-stakes environment like addressing homelessness.” Michelle Budzek adds, “When you use data for planning purposes and informing the design of programs, you create goals based on data and what’s actually happening.” The recent changes made to the HEARTH Act provide an impetus to create a data system, measurement system, and performance improvement infrastructure. According to Suchar, “Providers who do a good job [collecting data] should be rewarded and providers who are struggling [to collect data] should be helped. People need to see outcomes telling them how the community is doing.”

Increasing Rapid Rehousing

Implementing rapid rehousing was possible before the CoC Interim Rule took effect, but it was not easy to understand or take to scale for many providers, noted Suchar. The ability to use funds for rapid rehousing is laid out much clearer now in the NOFA and is encouraged as a primary intervention as part of a community’s crisis response system. The positive outcomes experienced by communities upon implementing rapid rehousing with Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing (HPRP) dollars show that for many subpopulations, like families, rapid rehousing works. Michelle Budzek forecasts, “As program types change from transitional housing to rapid rehousing, we have the potential to see declines in homelessness. There will be a much greater focus on getting people in housing as fast as possible, and we can expect to see the PIT Count overall to decline too. I think we’ll see people moving from the streets to housing rapidly as this intervention is taken to scale in more communities.”

Coordinated assessment

When a community of providers does not have a coordinated assessment, people experiencing and at-risk of  homelessness have difficulty accessing the many providers that can assist them in a streamlined way, as well as difficulty in getting matched with the right intervention for their needs. Without a coordinated assessment among housing and service providers, these individuals can be screened out of programs that they really need and from which they could benefit. Coordinated assessment provides a much more rational process matching people experiencing homelessness with appropriate services. The NOFA provides funding for communities to establish these systems.

A New Integration with Youth Providers

Michelle Budzek cannot remember a time when youth were not included in the Point in Time (PIT) Count, that is, in Cincinnati. She states, “Since the start in 1996, youth providers have always been at the table. Our HMIS system at the very beginning worked with and incorporated emergency shelters and CoC-funded programs, and Runaway and Homeless Youth programs.”  For many other communities, though, this integration has not always been strong. However, the federal government has taken the gaps in data and coordination for youth experiencing homelessness seriously, and is looking to leaders like Cincinnati to share their experience.  For this reason, she shared her firsthand knowledge of successful strategies to incorporate youth into the PIT Count that can be adopted by communities across the country:  

There is a work group in Cincinnati called the Homeless Outreach Group (HOG) that meets monthly and includes all outreach providers: both RHYA providers and those who focus on the adult population. These providers work collaboratively to make sure everyone on the street has an outreach worker assigned to them, including youth. This way, the youth on the street identified by HOG’s outreach efforts can be connected to the youth outreach workers directly and steered towards services that will best meet their needs.

HOG collectively leads the PIT Count, and the group is particularly well-positioned to perform this duty given the one-on-one ground work they do all year with those experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Budzek confirms, “the accuracy of the PIT Count increases with this approach, because the outreach workers know where those experiencing homelessness reside and usually have worked with them at one point throughout the year.” This year’s PIT count, that now includes changes to data capture focusing specifically on 18 – 24 year old youth, can provide an opportunity for providers who may not have worked together in the past to begin collaboration. 

Suchar and Budzek both see tremendous opportunities afforded by the changes made to the HEARTH Act. And, in their communication with providers they notice that the initial hesitations to HEARTH Act changes subside when providers learn exactly how the changes will impact their work. Technical assistance providers like National Alliance to End Homelessness and Partnership Center, ltd. (PCL) play critical roles during these times of legislative change. As communities begin work on their FY 2012 CoC Program applications, it is important for communities to connect with technical assistance providers to help clarify program regulations as well as stay on top of what practices are showing promise and success. Looking forward, the HEARTH Act will be able to flourish if effective elements like those mentioned in these interviews are taken to scale across communities large and small.