Best Practice | August 11, 2006
The Atlantic County Department of Family and Community Development (DFCD) has undertaken a series of new initiatives that are successfully making progress in ending homelessness among families. The initiatives include:
- Committing financial and staff resources to engage families residing in motels and provide assistance to help them re-enter permanent housing as soon as possible;
- Increasing payments to a local homeless shelter to fund a housing specialist; and
- Partnering with child welfare workers to address housing crises and prevent or minimize foster care placements.
Project Check-Out evolved because of concerns regarding the high number of families who were residing in motels in the county for extensive periods of time. In 2003, approximately 75 families were living in motels in Atlantic County, New Jersey. DFCD frequently filled every room of several area motels with families experiencing homelessness.
Like many states, New Jersey retained an Emergency Assistance (EA) Program under the state's TANF plan. Typically, welfare agencies can use EA funds to help pay rent or utility arrears for families who are at risk of eviction, cover security deposits, and provide short-term rent assistance. Welfare offices have also used EA resource to subsidize the cost of providing shelter to homeless families and, when shelter space is not available, motel stays.
Most of the families residing in Atlantic County motels in 2003 were receiving TANF cash assistance. DFCD also paid for their motel stays using EA resources. Most of the families were not receiving services or any assistance to help them find permanent housing.
Concerned over the increasing length of stays in motels, the welfare agency crafted Project Check-Out to help families move out of motels. The diverse strategies adopted include:
- Developing an "evening snack program" to engage and foster relations with families residing in the motels;
- Relocating staff persons from the welfare office to work intensively with the families;
- Ensuring quick access to EA resources for security deposits and other costs; and
- Linking families with New Jersey/s Temporary Rental Assistance Program (TRA) that provides a rent subsidy to welfare recipients for up to 12 months;
The first step in developing the program was to engage the families staying in motels and provide them with on-site case management on a daily basis. An evening snack program was instrumental in helping staff successfully outreach the families residing in motels. The program provides snacks to families in the motels, but more importantly, it provides a non-threatening avenue for the staff to get to know the families better, developing and strengthening the relationships that are needed to help the families move out of motels and into permanent housing.
DFCD reassigned four staff persons who were working in the office to work in the field. The staff have small caseloads and are able to provide intensive and flexible case management services. While the families are residing in motels, the staff provides services there. The families receive assistance with making appointments, looking at apartments, and negotiating with landlords. Eventually the case management services follow the family into their new home. The staff's goal is to address every barrier the family presents and help them resolve barriers immediately. For example, if the head of the household needs a document from another agency to make progress in re-accessing permanent housing, the staff transports him/her that day.
The staff can use EA resources to pay for security deposits, moving expenses, furniture, clothing and supplemental food and other initial expenses that might otherwise prevent families from re-accessing housing. Another tool at their disposal is a state-financed rental assistance program, the Temporary Rental Assistance Program (TRA). New Jersey commits TANF resources to the TRA program. Families on TANF cash assistance can use the rental subsidies for a period of 12 months. TRA pays a maximum of $700 a month. TRA complements the EA resources and helps ensure that families who move back into housing will be able to meet their rental payments.
In 2004, only four families are residing in motels in Atlantic County on any given night. Over the course of an 18-month time period, the agency moved 254 families from motels to permanent housing. Six of the 254 families served are known to have had a subsequent homeless episode, due to substance abuse.
Fund a Housing Specialist
The Atlantic County Department of Family and Community Development uses EA resources to provide a per diem reimbursement to a local shelter that serves families experiencing homelessness. DFCD increased the per diem rate to allow the shelter to fund an additional staff position. The new staff person focuses on outreaching and building relationships with local landlords. The effort to develop relationships with landlords has increased the shelter’s and the welfare office's capacity to move families out of homelessness more rapidly and into private rental housing stock.
Partner with Child Welfare Services
DFCD is now undertaking a third initiative to prevent homelessness and foster care placements in Atlantic County. Under this new initiative, DFCD approves families receiving child welfare services for EA services to help address pressing housing needs. This referral occurs when a child welfare worker identifies a family whose poor housing may lead to a foster care placement or delay children's return to the family from foster care. DFCD staff meets regularly with the N.J. Division of Youth & Family Services (DYFS) and case-conferences all open child abuse/neglect cases. The welfare office prioritizes all open DYFS cases and provides as much financial support as regulations allow to eliminate as many financial barriers as possible to stabilize families.
Together, these three initiatives substantially increased the use of EA resources to address the pressing permanent housing needs of families. It appears that the upfront investment is likely to yield cost savings to the community by preventing more costly lengthy shelter or motel stays and/or preventing or reducing stays in foster care when the most pressing concern is housing.
For more information:
Atlantic County Department of Family and Community Development
1333 Atlantic Avenue
Atlantic City, NJ 08401