Hennepin County’s Rapid Exit program is one of the longest operating rapid re-housing programs in the country. The program serves families experiencing homelessness in County‐contracted shelters. A central intake worker conducts an assessment of each family’s barriers to getting and keeping housing. Contracted housing providers help the family find housing through their networks of landlords and then offer six months of stabilization and tenancy support to the family, including responding to landlord concerns and mediating conflicts as needed.
Problem or Challenge:
Since the 1980s, Hennepin County had voluntarily provided shelter to all families with minor children who were experiencing homelessness and had no other options. But by 1992, after three consecutive years of 35 percent increases in shelter census, every shelter bed and every budget motel room was filled. The County was running out of resources to fulfill its obligations. None of the traditional approaches to homelessness could impact increasing shelter admissions and length of stay quickly enough to prevent having to turn families away from shelter.
Nonprofit service providers and County staff began meeting weekly to envision new approaches. The group focused on two strategies: reducing admissions to shelter and rapidly exiting families from shelter into housing. Everyone agreed on the goal, but they had no known models to achieve it. The planning group decided to consult the experts, holding focus groups with over a hundred families experiencing homelessness. They asked families, “What caused you to become homeless?” and “What’s keeping you homeless?” Using their responses, the group decided to focus on the intended outcome, experiment with a variety of methods and learn from the results. Meanwhile, they successfully lobbied for flexible new state funding for family homelessness grants that would, for the first time, specify only the intended results, leaving decisions about service design to local communities.
With the new, flexible, state funding provided by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency through the Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program (FHPAP), Hennepin County released a competitive Request for Proposals seeking nonprofits to rapidly move families out of homeless shelters. The primary target was the 80 percent of homeless families who had moderate to moderately serious housing barriers. Nonprofits helped families move into private market housing and provided stabilization support, primarily through home visits, for six months. The contracts were outcome‐based with few service specifications so there would be no contractual obstacles to innovation. Performance was measured by the percent of families that returned to homelessness after receiving assistance.
Central intake and screening: Families are screened in the family shelters. When a family states that they are homeless they will first meet with the shelter team. The shelter team (Hennepin County employees) does an initial assessment to determine whether the family could be assisted using some other means aside from a stay in shelter. For example, some funds are available if a small amount of rental assistance, a damage deposit, or rent arrears will help a family avoid a stay in shelter. The shelter team will also determine whether there are other family members that a homeless family can stay with to remain out of shelter. The goal is to ensure that shelter is the last possible option.
If a family must go to shelter, they meet with the Rapid Exit screener within the first few days. The screening is intended to accurately identify the barriers that the family will need to overcome to find and maintain housing.
Housing support: After the family has been screened they are referred to a Rapid Exit worker based at one of the nonprofit partner organizations. The Rapid Exit worker will help the family find housing of the family’s choice, tapping into a local network of landlords. In some cases, families move into market rate rental housing without receiving rental assistance. In other cases, a small amount of funds are available to provide one-time or short-term financial assistance. Families who are receiving Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) benefits (Minnesota’s TANF program) often receive a shallow rent subsidy, meaning the household may be spending more than half of its income (from welfare benefits) toward rent, with a small subsidy to cover a portion of the rent. Rapid Exit advocates have become skilled, credible intermediaries, devising creative and effective techniques to minimize the risk to landlords of renting to families with poor tenant screening reports. A landlord advisory committee has offered insights into landlord needs and concerns.
Housing stabilization or tenancy support services are provided for six months from program enrollment primarily through home visits that focus on helping tenants meet their lease conditions, pay the rent, and live as good neighbors. Supports include responding to the concerns of landlords and mediating conflict with other tenants or landlords, including conflicts over lease violations. If necessary, the services may include helping a tenant move out to avoid an eviction. The availability of these tenancy support services helps make some landlords willing to rent to households who might otherwise have been screened out during the tenant selection process.
Using data and learning from experience: Monthly meetings between County and nonprofit staff for training, problem‐solving, and data‐sharing have continued for the whole life of the program. As a result of the ongoing exchange of ideas, Hennepin County has made major changes, including flexible County funding to quickly pay many re‐housing costs, and a specialized County‐operated shelter team to coordinate Rapid Exit housing plans with public benefits.
Hennepin County has been able to maintain the “Shelter All” policy for families without having to turn away families who need emergency shelter. Shelter admissions and length of stay were reduced substantially. In one four‐year period prior to the recession, when internal County funding and staffing changes were implemented to support rapid re‐housing, shelter admissions declined by 42 percent, average length of stay was reduced by 47 percent and the total number of purchased bed‐nights was reduced by 70 percent. Despite the economic downturn, the County did not see any increases in families in its county shelters from 2009 to 2010, although this positive trend has since reversed.
Between 2009 and 2010, the Rapid Exit program helped more than 832 families, 368 adults, and 336 youth leave homelessness for permanent housing. Ninety-five percent of families and 90 percent of adults remain out of shelter for at least six months after their cases are closed. The average cost of Rapid Exit service per family is less than $1,100. By comparison, the cost of one episode of homelessness for a family is estimated by the County to average $5,000.
Families prefer the Rapid Exit approach to prolonged stays in shelter. Homelessness is a traumatic event for the entire family, but especially for children. The longer it lasts, the worse the after effects.
Once people who have been experiencing homelessness are housed, most feel safe enough to work on other life goals, particularly employment and children’s schooling. The most effective approach is to make sure services are voluntary (housing is not contingent upon service utilization or progress on life goals) and the household can decide their own priorities, sequencing, and timing.
Culturally‐competent staff is critical to program success. The majority of Rapid Exit staff mirror the racial/ethnic demographics and life experiences of homeless families. Staff members have experienced homelessness, poverty, single parenthood, chemical dependency and incarceration. They can quickly engage with families, offer practical advice, and act as role models.
Rapid Exit doesn’t work for everyone. Some families have very significant barriers to housing stability. Families who have a criminal history, many prior evictions, and extremely low incomes are at high risk of returning to shelter after Rapid Exit services and housing assistance ends. Hennepin County is continuing to refine its approach to Rapid Exit, and working to develop alternative approaches to meeting the needs of families who face the greatest challenges.
Contact Info for Follow-up:
Hennepin County: www.hennepin.us
Fact Sheets from Hennepin County and HUD HRE.
Promising Practice: Rapid Re-Housing
Promising Practice: Coordinated Entry
Model Program: Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program (FHPAP)