Community Action to End Family Homelessness
Communities across our nation are seeing resources decrease while facing continued high levels of family homelessness. Because of these challenges it is important for communities to take a step back and take a systems level look at how family homelessness is being addressed. It is clear that the only way to make headway ending family homelessness is to make all systems that touch low-income families work in concert to achieve early interventions and to address housing crises when they occur. Many communities have figured out how to do just that.
Below are five strategies and accompanyng questions to ask to help communities make sure they are effectively using their resources to prevent and end family homelessness:
- Collaborate strategically. Ending family homelessness begins with having the right people at the table and committed to the goal. The discussion needs to include TANF and child welfare, schools and health care, housing providers, and workforce centers, along with family and homeless programs. Does your community have a cross sector group of public and private leaders steering this work? Is your community operating a deliberate system to prevent, reduce, and end family homelessness, or is it a disconnected set of programs that don't work together? If mainstream agencies don't currently come to the homelessness planning table, where do they meet? Can they be engaged on the issues they focus on which overlap homelessness, such as unemployment, out of home child placements, violence and instability?
- Improve access to mainstream resources and make sure that those who work to distribute these resources act in partnership with those who need the resources. There is great potential to leverage mainstream resources to serve families that are homeless. By adding the supportive services offered by a range of existing providers in mainstream systems, families will benefit from a holistic approach. Do the programs that assist people in getting a job, affordable housing, health insurance, food and income support reach the families who need them most? Is it easy for families experiencing homelessness to reach agencies that can help them access benefits and support? Can these supports be provided quickly?
- Target homeless-focused resources (both prevention and homeless services) to those who need them most. One of the biggest challenges for programs that help families at risk of homelessness is to figure out when to let families resolve their problems without much assistance, when to use prevention dollars, and when additional support is needed. What we learned from HPRP is that when prevention resources are targeted to families with extremely low incomes, few social supports, and histories of housing instability, they help the people most likely to actually enter homelessness. The more resources and stability a family has, the more likely they will weather a crisis that threatens housing stability without outside assistance, even when faced with eviction or forced to relocate. The same is the case with families who do become homeless and enter shelter. Research shows that many that will resolve their situation largely on their own with only a brief stay in shelter. Assessment-based approaches to this challenge use the families' history and current conditions to identify cohorts, targeting the deepest resources to those identified as have the greatest barriers. Progressive engagement approaches provide light amounts of assistance to larger numbers of families, and only provide higher levels of support after the initial support has been shown to be inadequate to attain stability. In either case, deep resources are reserved for highest needs. Communities must ask who needs short-term assistance, and who needs the far more expensive and intensive interventions of transitional and permanent supportive housing? How can more resource-intensive programs be encouraged or required to take those with greater barriers?
- The best and most cost-effective way to end family homelessness is to get families out of shelters and off the streets and into more permanent housing as quickly as possible. Targeted homeless programs should be working to connect families experiencing homelessness to community- based resources outside of the homeless system quickly so that the experience is a short one. This also allows homeless programs to focus on the next household in need of housing. Are targeted homeless programs effectively and quickly connecting those in need to services that can get them back on their feet?
- Let data and best practices inform policy and systems operation. USICH is asking communities to partner with us to take a fresh look at how homelessness assistance dollars are spent, who is helped, and who is not. HMIS data provides a great picture of who is ending up in shelter, and how long they stay there. Similarly, what are the characteristics of people using transitional housing? Are your programs cost effective at providing transitional support? Are there rapid re-housing and transition-in-place models? And for those families with the greatest needs, are there supportive options that are not time-limited? HMIS can provide communities with the data they need to assess the performance of programs and the impact overall. Is your community using the data it collects to guide strategic planning and to make course corrections?