Progressive Engagement

In 2009, Congress passed the HEARTH Act, which set the stage for a new way of approaching homelessness, with the intent to end it. HEARTH provides resources to communities in a more flexible manner than before, and also provides the first set of performance expectations for homeless programs, including establishing a federal goal to “ensure that individuals and families that become homeless return to permanent housing within 30 days.” To achieve this goal, communities and service providers are going to have to use resources differently.

Progressive engagement provides an opportunity to do just that—to use resources differently to appropriately serve as many households as possible. The progressive engagement model fits neatly with one of the major themes of Opening Doors, retooling the crisis response system. Creating a crisis response system means looking at all the resources communities currently invest in addressing homelessness and figuring out how to best deploy them to meet the goals of reaching all who need assistance, and return households experiencing homelessness to stable housing more quickly. The lessons learned from HPRP and other programs that used progressive engagement techniques across the country are important to scale up now, as all communities look to stretch dollars further and help the most people possible.  

Briefly, progressive engagement refers to a strategy of starting off offering a small amount of assistance initially, and adding more if needed to help each household reach stability. This strategy uses the lightest touch possible for each household to be successful, knowing more assistance can be added later if needed. Assessment is still critical to this strategy, but is used primarily to identify the households’ strengths the program can work with and the barriers they’ll have to address to obtain housing, not to determine the amount of assistance they will ultimately need.  Communities learned from HPRP and conveyed to federal policymakers that most families need only short-term assistance to gain and retain housing. However, some families need more help, which can be challenging to determine.

The Road Home in Salt Lake City, Utah has used a progressive engagement approach for several years and has consistently found that most family households that enter shelter can be rehoused with a light touch and little or no financial assistance. Thirty three percent of families leave for housing with no financial assistance while another 62 percent get rapid rehousing assistance averaging five months. Their practice of using progressive engagement has also dramatically lowered lengths of stay in shelter, from 71 days five years ago to under 30. Since 2009, 87 percent of the households served by the Road Home in this way have not returned to shelter.

How Progressive Engagement Works

The progressive engagement model starts by offering a fairly basic level of assistance across the board. For example, a shelter might provide all households who enter with  help preparing a housing plan,  lists of units or landlords to contact , assistance  preparing applications, and access to  limited resources for  fees and deposits or local transportation. For households unable to exit with this level of help, the program provides a greater level of housing search assistance, tied to short-term rental assistance and case management. For most households, this will be sufficient to stabilize in housing in the community within a fairly short period. If, however,  the situation is still highly unstable after three or four months, the program can reassess the household and  continue to provide  assistance with the same or another resource, for the medium- or longer-term. Reassessment at this stage is frequent and assistance typically continued for a month at a time.

This approach is both responsive to the needs of the household while ensuring that interventions are right-sized to provide the greatest efficiency for the agency ,and the  households assisted don’t  have to move, or even change programs or case managers along the way.

Thinking Big Picture: Designing a Progressive Engagement Model

Though progressive engagement provides great flexibility in the delivery of services, it is critical to use t data to project how long households are likely to stay in the program to develop an initial program budget and staff cost. It is also important to think through how best to make the resources available match the households that will be assisted; is more than one short-term resource needed to accommodate different types of households?  And, programs must have a small amount of long-term resources or units at the ready, for those who over time demonstrate a need for the greatest intensity of subsidy and services.

The program is designed systematically and with an idea of what range of assistance the total group is likely to need, but each household is worked with on an individual basis to tailor service delivery specifically to their needs with an emphasis on supporting a rapid transition off support if at all possible.

An essential component of a progressive engagement approach is its reliance on partnerships. For the program to offer most participants a light touch, community partners must be identified to support an individual’s or family’s success with the kind of support the housing program will not be providing such as ongoing child care, connections to food banks and employment programs, and links to health care.

At its heart, progressive engagement represents a change in culture for most organizations and communities. Many of us come to this work with the desire to offer clients all that is available – they face great challenges and we want to help them. Progressive engagement reminds us that any time or resource used with one client is a resource that will not be available for the next client who has an equal right to an organization’s assistance. Programs should find ways to celebrate the success of the households’ that leave them and incentivize staff to “let go”.

Lastly, the outcomes of progressive engagement should be collected as data and used to inform further program design. Learning from the experience of the program will inform efforts to refine our progressive engagement efforts.

First, it is necessary to define expected outcomes, and we suggest beginning with three of the key HEARTH measures – are people getting housed, are they getting housed quickly, and are they staying housed after you assist them? That last one can be challenging because it poses additional questions – are you calling to check up on people, are you using re-entry data into shelters? What are the characteristics of the people and/or families who reenter the shelters, of those who remain housed?

Progressive engagement is an emerging best practice that we can learn from to support individuals and families in obtaining stable housing.  This progressive engagement approach is described in more detail in a supplemental document to the USICH Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness. Access it here. USICH Policy Director Katharine Gale also presented on this topic at the 2013 National Conference to End Family and Youth Homelessness, which you can access here.