Program Profile: the Hamilton Family Center in San Francisco

For 26 years, the Hamilton Family Center has been operating an emergency family shelter with 24-hour access and without a waiting list. Over the years it has grown from just a shelter to include five additional programs. The mission of the Hamilton Family Center is to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty through a Housing First Approach. USICH spoke with Megan Owens, Associate Director of the First Avenues Program.

USICH: What services are part of the Hamilton Family Center?

Ms. Owens:  The Hamilton Family Center provides a full continuum of programs to serve families experiencing or at-risk of homelessness:

  • The 24 Hour Emergency Center provides access to overnight or 60-day beds for homeless families.
  • The Hamilton Family Residences are the largest family shelter in San Francisco with 26 private family shelter rooms serving families for 3-6 months with supportive services.
  • 20 units of transitional housing with supportive services are available for high-needs families for up to 18 months.
  • The Dudley Apartments are 80 units of permanent supportive housing operated in collaboration with Mercy Housing California, giving chronically homeless families and single adults a permanent housing option.
  • The First Avenues Program is Hamilton Family Center’s housing program focused on preventing high-risk families from falling into or returning to homelessness through short-term rental assistance and rapid re-housing.
  • Project Potential is the Center’s program for children and youth and includes family-centered educational and daily enrichment activities for children aged 0 to 18 years old to help overcome the barriers to success for children experiencing homelessness.

USICH: What do you believe are the most important programs and focus areas for service providers serving children and youth in families?

Ms. Owens: By far, the most important step for serving children and youth in families is to get families into stable independent housing. Children receive the comprehensive services in residential shelters and transitional where all the supportive services are on-site, and sometimes it is tempting to keep families in residential services because it is in one location. We have found, however, that families do best when they have their own apartment with rental subsidies, even if that means they do not have access to on-site services The stability of having their own place creates better outcomes for both the child and the parents and increases the bond between the parent and child.

Another important focus for children is access to structured play and activities for children in a non-stigmatizing environment. In Project Potential, we provide 5 days a week of structured play in both transitional housing and in family emergency shelter. The focus here is to develop the potential of each child in structured environment. Art therapy, animal therapy, educational and literacy activities, and homework help, and family fun nights that engage parents are just some of the programs we offer. These are led by staff and volunteers in the community who can also provide one-on-one attention for children while their parents are in other supportive services like parent education classes, case managment and therapy.

For school-aged children and youth, access to school is a focus for our population, and a challenge for most programs. In San Francisco, the McKinney-Vento liaison made a decision to use a portion of the budget to get MUNI passes (the transit system of San Francisco) for students who are homeless or who have housing instability. We collaborate with this liaison to ensure that the children we serve are connected to this opportunity. This enables students regardless of where they live in the district to keep school stability, an important step in keeping students from falling behind. This also saves the district money because they are able to locate kids if they move because they are still going to the same school.

USICH: How do you leverage mainstream resources to serve the needs of homeless families with children specifically?

Ms. Owens: Many families in our program are very good at getting common subsidies like food stamps and CalWORKs (TANF in California), but there is so much more that families can and should access. The case managers here work to become savvier within the CalWORKs system to provide the best-fit CalWORKs program for a family, a big part of which is childcare. Many parents don’t know that they can obtain appropriate childcare in order to keep employment, and we work with a local legal  advocates to ensure that families are treated fairly in this system and are able to access education, childcare, and income for their family’s stability.

We collaborate with local disability service organizations and advocates to connect the families we serve to SSI and SSDI.  Especially for children with special needs, both with developmental and physical disabilities, access to these benefits is powerful poverty prevention tool.  Even service providers need assistance going through the process because the system is quite complicated.

USICH: Who are your key partners?

Ms. Owens: Since the infusion of HPRP dollars, we were able to expand our First Avenues program and create a new partnership specifically with service providers for victims of domestic violence: La Casa de Las Madres and Asian Women’s Shelter. In collaboration with these service providers, we identify more families in crisis who can benefit from rapid re-housing services and rental subsidies. Our HPRP program included specific set-asides for victims of domestic violence. We were also able to cross-train our case managers on domestic violence services and their staff on the full spectrum of housing services. From that collaboration and training, we found both that our domestic violence partners are now committed to Housing First practices and that short- and medium-term interventions for this population are effective.