Home Free is a program of the Volunteers of America – Oregon designed to expand access to services among survivors of domestic violence facing housing instability. Home Free closed its emergency shelter in 2003 and retooled its services to provide mobile supports to families in housing and other community-based settings.
Problem or Challenge:
Prior to 2003, Home Free offered facility-based emergency shelter and transitional housing to survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Program administrators recognized that they were serving only a fraction of the households in need. A 1998 study found that only 15 percent of families surviving domestic violence accessed a hotline or a shelter.
To meet the needs of households outside the scope of their current programs, Home Free administrators added outreach services and began using a mobile service delivery approach to serve households in the community. They discovered they were reaching a different and broader group of survivors. Home Free helped families explore housing options and began to implement a rapid re-housing approach, using motel vouchers as needed for emergency housing.
Moving from providing services exclusively through a shelter-based approach to one that served households throughout the community was transformative. Home Free found that it was serving many more households than it had reached previously, that many more survivors were accessing services, and that rapid re-housing was a cost effective service with far-reaching impacts on safety and stabilization. In 2003, after a small-scale pilot that linked rapid re-housing assistance with community-based services, Home Free decided to close its emergency shelter after 77 years of operation. By coordinating with community partners to ensure 24-hour access to crisis services, Home Free also reduced its hotline hours to 8 am – 6 pm Monday through Friday, expanded the motel voucher program, and further concentrated its efforts on expanding non-residential service elements and offering assistance to connect families to permanent housing.
Home Free serves a variety of populations. The basic eligibility criteria for the participants in the rapid re-housing program are very inclusive:
Survival of a domestic violence or sexual abuse situation;
Immediate crisis caused by violence or abuse has been somewhat stabilized;
Permanent housing stabilization is a primary need; and
Financial resourcefulness was compromised by domestic violence or other barriers.
The assessment process for the program is designed to be minimally intrusive and focuses primarily on rental and employment histories and potential barriers to housing. Consequently, the program is serving households with an array of needs. A majority of households served are actively involved with the child welfare system, nearly 50 percent have a history of a mental health problem, and nearly one-third have a history of alcohol and/or drug problems. Home Free is assisting a higher proportion of Latino, African-American, and Native American households than it had in the past, signaling progress in its goal to increase access to services by historically underserved communities.
Home Free provides a range of services, including direct services for children, domestic violence and parenting support groups, and advocacy with landlords and the public housing authority. All of the services provided by Home Free are participant-driven. This service philosophy is based on the premise that, given choices and opportunities, participants will work to ensure their own safety and success. Home Free has found that if services are meaningful and connected to participants’ goals, people will actively remain engaged in services.
Services begin with addressing the immediate needs of the household. This includes ensuring household safety and a possible motel placement until new housing can be found. A housing search begins immediately. Short-term goals are developed and Home Free provides direct financial assistance and advocacy with landlords to help households access housing. Financial assistance can range from short-term rental assistance to help with accessing permanent housing subsidies. Home Free has built strong relationships with area apartment management companies and landlords to streamline access to housing. Because Home Free is there to support its participants, landlords are more likely to rent to them, even when they have bad credit, spotty rental histories, or insecure income.
Once housing is obtained, an advocate begins to work with the household on issues that will promote housing retention. Services offered during this phase include home visits; job search and job training referrals; help with navigating other systems like child welfare, courts, and law enforcement; linkages to legal services; and help with budgeting and goal planning. Eventually work begins on long-term goals, including increasing household income and helping survivors increase their ability to advocate for themselves and navigate services independently. Home Free has cultivated robust partnerships with public and community-based social service providers to make it easier for its participants to access assistance. The relationships with community partners also help facilitate referrals of households in crisis to Home Free.
Rental housing assistance is commonly provided for six months to one year; other supportive services offered to families may last up to two years if they are needed and welcomed. Services are offered to prepare households for transitioning off of the rent subsidy in order to better ensure housing retention after exit from the program. Home Free has enriched these service offerings as the program has developed, including offering expedited linkage to trauma-informed counselors and holding tenant education and financial empowerment classes. An employment access specialist has also been added to the staff to help participants increase their income and improve their financial self-sufficiency.
Home Free first piloted new approaches to housing assistance utilizing funds from HUD’s Supportive Housing Program, which is now a part of the Continuum of Care program. After observing the high degree of housing stabilization achieved by households served with this approach, the program expanded by securing a combination of public and private funds. Diverse funding streams have optimized the program’s flexibility in responding to various household circumstances. Households that did not fit the eligibility criteria for the HUD-funded program, based on the federal definition of homelessness, could be served using foundation funds. Under a contract with the public housing authority, Home Free acts as the lead agency, distributing funding for short-term rent assistance to 10 domestic violence agencies in the local domestic violence system.
Home Free’s initial outcomes were very positive, which reinforced the organization’s decision to invest more resources in meeting the housing needs of families when the organization closed its shelter program. Home Free has found that many survivors of domestic violence are able to quickly stabilize in their own homes and succeed in maintaining that housing, bypassing a prolonged shelter stay or makeshift and sometimes risky temporary housing arrangements.
While moving away from the prevailing model of providing domestic violence services and support in a structured shelter setting represented an initial challenge for some staff, the flexibility of Home Free’s program model and approach has proved beneficial to both families and the organization. Now better able to provide services driven by the survivor’s own plan, advocates develop a working partnership that is respectful and based on the survivors’ own desires and needs. Home Free leaders believe that allowing participants to choose how they engage with services creates a more genuine, open, and honest relationship with their advocate. Staff members also seem to prefer the voluntary services approach, as focusing on the participant’s own goals is consistent with their mission to help survivors achieve self-determination.
Through its motel voucher program, Home Free provides emergency housing to four times as many families as was possible through its facility-based shelter, expanding the capacity of the community’s emergency housing response. Resources formerly utilized to maintain the shelter facility assisted the growth of the Housing First program. In fiscal year 2010-2011, about 96 percent of households enrolled in Housing First obtained safe housing, with 97 percent of these households remaining stably housed one year after exiting services.
A study launched in 2007 and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized Home Free’s program as a remarkable innovation and studied the outcomes of families assisted by Home Free. The SHARE Study is a quasi-experimental, longitudinal, community-based, participatory study designed to evaluate the effectiveness, including cost-effectiveness, of Home Free. The evaluation examines the role of housing stability in preventing repeated victimization and reducing negative health outcomes of domestic violence survivors and their children. Findings indicate that families with stable housing have better outcomes on an array of measures, including severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and quality of life. The findings also indicate that housing instability may be a stronger predictor of negative outcomes than the level of danger to which a family is subject. The study affirmed the importance of addressing housing stabilization when assisting survivors of domestic violence.
In fiscal year 2010-2011, Home Free provided emergency housing through motel vouchers and crisis assistance to 212 families and provided permanent housing and intensive, long-term advocacy services to 97 families. Over 1,000 adults, children, and teenagers received face-to-face services from advocates sited at community partners around the community or from outreach services. Nearly 2,500 survivors were assisted with filing protection orders.
Contact Info for Follow-up:
Volunteers of America:www.voaor.org. This includes a copy of the program brochure and program outcomes.
Additional information: http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/article/detail/2680
Evidence Based Practice: Rental Housing Assistance
Promising Practice: Rapid Re-Housing
Promising Practice: Homelessness Prevention