Field Notes: The Homeless System from Another Perspective

written by Kim Walker
June 12, 2013

One of my first projects at the Alliance was a project in Lincoln, Nebraska. As part of that project, my friend and colleague Iain De Jong and I developed some surveys to enable us to learn more about the experiences of people interacting with the homeless assistance system, as well as how they felt about those experiences. Since then, we have modified the surveys, incorporated them into our Performance Improvement Clinics, and gathered responses from dozens of communities.

The surveys ask a number of questions, ranging from personal questions about current housing and employment status to practical questions about what consumers needed from the system and what they ended up receiving.

For today’s blog post, I decided to take a quick look at the results from 10 of the communities we surveyed and share five questions and the corresponding responses. These survey results come from rural areas, states, large cities, and counties of varying sizes. (I also tried to pick places from each of the major geographic regions in the U.S.) The survey responses below represent insights from a total of 1,452 people that have experienced homelessness. Below the responses from consumers are some questions to consider for providers.

What services or assistance do you or did you need the most to get permanent housing? (Survey respondents could select more than one choice).

Rental assistance was the most common response in 9/10 surveys. Only one survey had funding for assistance other than rent as the most popular response.

To return to housing, most consumers believe they need rental assistance above any other service a provider can offer them. Does your community have financial resources readily available for the people experiencing homelessness in your community? Has your community looked into funding sources outside of traditional homeless assistance funding sources, such as housing trust funds, the faith-based community, or mainstream resources, like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)?

What services or help were you offered to help you get housing? (Survey respondents could select more than one choice).

These responses are especially interesting after looking at the responses to the first question. We had some ties for most popular response in this one. 7/10 surveys had case management as the most common response, followed by rental assistance in 2/10 surveys. Help finding a job, transitional housing, and funding for assistance other than rent were either the most popular response or tied for the most popular response once.

In most cases then, it would appear that what people feel they need the most to be re-housed – rental assistance – is not what they’re being offered most often by the homeless assistance providers in their community. Would it be worth examining the balance of case management vs. financial assistance offered in your community (in cases where these resources come from the same funding source) to determine if tweaks are necessary?

I felt that the services I received while homeless were focused on helping me get back into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

In 6/10 surveys, most consumers agreed with this statement; in 3/10 they neither disagreed or agreed with it, and in 1/10 they disagreed with the statement.

The responses here are encouraging, as it appears that in most of our sample communities a focus on quickly housing consumers is coming across in the way these communities provide services.  Would consumers in your community say the same?

To get help, I was sometimes asked to do things that I didn’t want to do.

This was pretty evenly split, and also had a tie: In 4/10 times agree was the popular response, followed by neither disagree or agree and disagree (which were most popular three times each), and strongly agree (most popular once).

Programs in these communities, and everywhere else, should be taking the answers to this question to heart, and asking more of them, to figure out how well they are respecting the needs of their consumers. In your community, are you forcing consumers to engage with services they don’t want or don’t need? Would a voluntary service model, such as the one used with many rapid re-housing programs, be a better fit for meeting consumer needs and be more successful as a consumer engagement strategy? Are there any elements of your program that are tied to a “housing readiness” model over a “housing first” model, and does having those elements in place make sense?

Thinking about the most recent time you became homeless, what could have prevented you from becoming homeless? (Survey respondents could select more than one choice).

Rental assistance was by far the most common response, as it was the most popular in 9/10 cases. Help finding a job and other financial assistance each were the most popular response one time (there was another tie among the responses to this question as well).

Once again, we see that most consumers feel that they need the most is rental assistance, both on the prevention side and when attempting to  exit homelessness.

You can access one version of our survey here. Whether you use our survey or not, as this survey shows it, it is so important to make sure you keep checking in with people on their experience with your homeless assistance system. Their needs must be used to shape the decisions you make moving forward about resource allocation and to provide a crucial perspective on how best to provide assistance. Good performance in every community ultimately means meeting consumer housing needs, which is something no community can afford to forget.