Columbus Coordinated Entry System: YWCA Family Center and Coordinated Point of Access
Columbus, Ohio operates two systems that provide coordinated entry to the services, shelter, and housing assistance needed by families with children and single adults who are experiencing homelessness. In 1999, the community of Columbus established a coordinated entry system (also known as coordinated intake) that allows families facing housing loss to quickly access the services they need through a single “front door.” This point of access, the YWCA Family Center, has served in this role since 2006 as a gateway to homelessness prevention programs and shelter and from there to an array of resources, including one-time financial assistance, rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing. It is one of the longest-running coordinated entry systems for families in the country. Working through the Community Shelter Board, Columbus launched a similar system for single adults in 2010, the Coordinated Point of Access.
Problem or Challenge:
Prior to implementation of its coordinated entry system for families in 1999, the homeless response system in Columbus looked quite different than it does today. At the time, the largest family shelter, operated by the YWCA, was only a day center and families were transported to area churches/synagogues each evening utilizing the Interfaith Hospitality Network model. This was hard on families because they stayed at different locations each week and had to get up very early and take all of their belongings with them each morning. There were also four other family shelters but no coordinated entry point among them. Families in need of shelter had to call around to each shelter looking for an available bed. Additionally, there was an extensive use of motel vouchers to provide family shelter. Overall success rates for families to exit to housing were low.
The Community Shelter Board (CSB) was established in 1986 as a public-private partnership organization to fashion a collaborative community response to homelessness. In 1999, CSB, the YWCA and other family shelter providers felt the community could do better for families in crisis and re-organized the family system to include central access and coordinated shelter intake, new “direct housing” options (later nationally called rapid re-housing), and a housing focused shelter system. As a consequence, a shelter for women and children operated by the Salvation Army was closed and the program funding was invested in direct housing. Over the years, one Tier 2 shelter closed and the other Tier 2 emergency shelters evolved to a rolling stock/transition in place model. Based on family needs, the supply of transitional housing was reduced and additional permanent supportive housing capacity added. Generally there is an adequate supply of permanent supportive housing for high-need families. There is only one short-term transitional housing program that operates to stabilize families prior to admission to long-term treatment housing. Program and system performance data were used to drive the changes in the configuration of resources.
A major facility improvement occurred when CSB and the YWCA identified the need for a new physical facility to serve as a 24-hour front door into the homeless assistance system. The YWCA board embarked on a capital campaign and raised money to build the YWCA Family Center. Completed in 2006, the Family Center has capacity to provide emergency shelter to 50 families each night plus additional overflow capacity as needed. The coordinated entry system for families, operated by the Family Center, is co-located with this emergency shelter.
In 2008, Columbus updated its 10-year plan to end homelessness and called for a centralized point of access for single adults modeled on that for families. A provider was selected to implement this new approach in April 2010, and all single adults accessed shelter through a single physical location. An unintended consequence was a concentration of a significant number of individuals experiencing homelessness in the area of the facility. In response to neighborhood concerns, CSB switched to a virtual coordinated point of access in early 2012. This phone-based diversion and shelter intake process is managed by HandsOn, the community’s 211 service provider.
In Columbus the systems for coordinated entry provide a single door of entry into the emergency shelter system for families and another for single adults. All families in a housing crisis call or present at the YWCA Family Center. Single adults call a 1-800 number to use the Coordinated Point of Access. As a first step, the individual or family is triaged for appropriate links to prevention services or other diversionary options and admitted to shelter only if it is needed. Some specialized programs do not participate directly in the coordinated entry system but may exchange referrals with it. These include the local shelters serving unaccompanied youth and domestic violence survivors and the shelter specializing in serving persons who are inebriated. Unaccompanied youth or teen parents who seek assistance through either the YWCA Family Center or the Coordinated Point of Access are linked to Huckleberry House, which offers a 24-hour shelter and other crisis services for youth as well as a Transitional Living Program.
Once they are sheltered, the next step is to help the families and individuals move quickly into permanent housing and this becomes the primary focus. There are a number of options for exit from shelter. The quickest and least expensive is called transition assistance, one-time limited financial assistance with no additional case management services.
For families who need more than just financial assistance, “next step housing” programs, which are also known as “direct housing,” offer rapid re-housing assistance. Case managers or family advocates from the direct housing programs begin working with families while they are still in shelter to help them find housing. Family stays in shelter are relatively short (averaging about 17 days). If treatment services are needed to address mental health or substance use disorders, referrals are made from the shelter. The family advocates in the direct housing programs have time to get to know the families and they are often in the best position to identify those families who will need more long-term assistance. They can help those families with referrals to permanent supportive housing if appropriate.
Columbus also operates a unified system which manages access to permanent supportive housing for families and single adults who need this level of support.
A key element of Columbus’s coordinated entry system is Columbus Service Point (CSP), the Columbus Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS). CSP is an open data system and all providers share data and can see the family’s or individual’s movement through the homeless assistance system. All intakes, referrals, assessments, and exits are inputted into CSP.
While similar procedures are used to assist families with children and individuals who are experiencing homelessness, there are also some differences in the implementation of coordinated entry for families and individuals and in the options available to help them exit homelessness. The two approaches are described separately below.
Families. The first point of contact for a family in housing crisis in Columbus is often by phone. Triage and diversion from shelter can sometimes happen while the family is on the phone. If it does not, the family is asked to come to the YWCA Family Center. Transportation assistance is available if needed. Families may be picked up by YWCA drivers or by cab paid by the Family Center. When a family arrives at the Family Center, they are immediately triaged to see if diversion from a shelter stay is possible. If the family has not yet lost their housing they are referred to Stable Families, a homelessness prevention program that is focused on preserving tenancy through the provision of case management, supportive services, and cash assistance if necessary to maintain housing.
If the family does not have housing, the Family Center works to find another place for the family to stay instead of entering shelter, encouraging the family to take advantage of any opportunity to stay in a safe place. Entry into shelter is kept as a last resort measure. All families that need shelter get it. If the Family Center does not have an available bed, the family is provided with an overflow bed at the Center or in extreme cases at motels. The household must have an adult with minor children and partners (regardless of marital status) are welcome if they are part of the household. Teen parents (17 and under) with children are referred to Huckleberry House for assistance. Intakes into shelter are done 24/7. There is a quick intake done if the family comes in the middle of the night and then completed the next morning.
The Family Center has a partnership with Project Connect, a school district project (McKinney-Vento school liaison) serving children in families experiencing homelessness. Close to 98 percent of children return to attend their home school within one business day of entering the shelter. A Project Connect partner is located on site to help make this happen.
Individuals. Single adults call a 1-800 number operated by HandsOn of Central Ohio and are triaged over the phone. If the person, assisted by the intake worker, is able to make other arrangements for the night, then the shelter stay is diverted. If the individual has acute needs that cannot be addressed safely in a shelter setting, then a referral may be made to a mental health provider, to the shelter for inebriated adults, or other health services that are more appropriate.
As a last resort HandsOn will proceed with shelter intake. Referrals from coordinated intake to shelter are made through CSP. If a shelter bed is available, the individual will have their bed reserved in CSP. This lets the shelter know that somebody is assigned to their shelter and to expect their arrival. The individual is then asked to go to the assigned shelter. Transportation is provided if needed.
If a shelter bed is not available, the individual is added to a shelter wait list, managed in CSP. Intakes are performed 24/7. Individual preference is taken into account in all shelter referrals if capacity is available.
Families. The Family Center conducts an assessment with the family within 48 hours of intake. The process takes about one and a half hours. Comprehensive information is gathered on the family and policies and expectations are discussed for their stay at the YWCA. During this stage a first determination is made about the family’s exit path, which can be anything from simple financial assistance to entry into permanent supportive housing. The family is then referred to a family advocate whom they will see within three days. The family advocate will confirm the path for the family and will work with the family to complete their goal plan. The assessment is completed in CSP and can then be used by participating next step housing providers so they do not have to repeat the process when the family enters their program. Families also have the opportunity to see an employment resources specialist or a child advocate.
Providers of next step housing programs, the YWCA, and CSB staff meet weekly for a program administrators meeting. The purpose is to discuss families currently in need of housing assistance and to decide which of the available housing options offers the best match for specific family needs. They also hold a monthly family system operations workgroup meeting with providers to look at systems issues that affect services. This is where processes are discussed and streamlined to be made more efficient.
Individuals. The assessment process for adults through HandsOn takes about 20 minutes and is primarily focused on the collection of information needed to refer the individual to diversion programs or shelter. Case managers in the shelters conduct individual assessments within five days of the individual’s entry into shelter. The assessment process, which includes a Vulnerability Assessment, is used to identify needs and make referrals into options that include rapid re-housing, transitional housing, next step housing, or other services.
Families. Columbus has increased its emphasis on rapid re-housing as the primary option for families, converting two long-term shelters to rapid re-housing programs in 2011. The system’s goal is to refer families to these programs within seven days after they enter shelter and ensure their entry into housing within an additional 14 days. CSB would like to see this placement rate for all of the system’s direct housing programs.
Local partners involved in providing services to families have developed extensive housing partnerships. Each year an MOU is signed that details the collaborations among all of the family system partners.
For referral to market rate housing, the Family Advocate assists the family with the housing search, assures all documents needed are obtained, and arranges transportation as needed for housing search and appointments. Direct client assistance funds through CSB provide on average up to three months of rent or a security deposit to help families move into new housing. A Job2Housing program provides six months of rent subsidy and job training skills; it is the longest duration rapid re-housing program within the system.
Referrals to permanent supportive housing are made through the Unified Supportive Housing System managed by CSB.
Individuals. Based on individual assessments, individuals are referred by the shelter to various housing options, including permanent housing (usually with transition assistance from CSB), or to the Unified Supportive Housing System for placement into permanent supportive housing. Based on the assessment, some individuals may be referred to temporary options such as transitional housing or treatment programs if needed to address severe mental health or substance use disorder issues.
CSB publishes monthly, quarterly, and annual program and system performance reports on its website, www.csb.org. The FY 2013 first quarter System and Program Indicator Report (covering the period July 1 to September 30, 2012) is available here.
CSB makes extensive use of data and CSP to track individual provider and system performance and issues reports on shelter and diversion outcomes to the community on a quarterly, semi-annual, and annual basis. All client contacts are tracked in CSP starting at the initial point of triage. All participating providers have access to data and are responsible for keeping the CSP system up to date. They also use it as a communication tool with each other. All direct housing providers are now paid 100 percent on performance and all shelters have a performance component in their contracts. Providers are interested in each others’ success because they are all invested in the success of the system.
Implementation of the coordinated entry system resulted in a significant decline in the number of families entering shelters in Columbus, from more than 1,000 families a year to fewer than 700 families a year before Ohio was hit hard by the nation’s economic downturn. These results are described in a Community Snapshot created by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The recession significantly increased the demand for assistance for families experiencing housing crises, but the coordinated entry system continued to divert between 30 to 40 percent of families from shelter. During the 2011-2012 fiscal year the Family Center’s coordinated entry system served 1,855 families. One third of these families were diverted from shelter. For single adults, the central point of access was contacted by 6,387 individuals, and 15 percent were diverted from shelter.
In addition to its coordinated entry system, Columbus also made significant changes in the availability of options for families in order to reduce the length of stay (LOS) for families in shelter and to improve outcomes at the back door of the shelter system. In the first quarter of FY 2013, average LOS for families in the emergency shelter system dropped to 18 days, a dramatic decline from 71 days in 2000. The Data Snapshot 2011 reports that successful housing outcomes for families served in emergency shelters increased from 27 percent in 1995 to 69 percent in 2011, and similar rates of successful housing outcomes for families (66 to 67 percent) were reported in 2012 and the first quarter of FY 2013.
Contact Info for Follow-up:
Community Shelter Board www.csb.org
Evidenced-Based Practice: Coordinated Entry
Evidenced-Based Practice: Permanent Supportive Housing
Promising Practice: Homelessness Prevention
Promising Practice: Rapid Re-Housing
Model Program: Whatcom Homeless Service Center (Whatcom Co., WA)
Model Program: Front Door Assessment (Dayton, OH)