Best Practice | August 11, 2006
In response to increasing shelter requests by families, the District of Columbia developed a cost-effective, humane, and innovative response to help those at imminent risk of homelessness: providing substantial resources at the front-end of the homeless services continuum to help families rapidly obtain permanent housing without ever entering a homeless shelter program.
The program is a collaborative effort of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness and federally funded Family Support Centers. The staff of seven community-based Family Support Centers helps families to access housing and offers transitional, intensive case management services to ensure they stabilize in that housing. The Community Partnership provides funds to support the transitional case management and flexible, time-limited resources to help defray the cost of housing.
The program provides the services and support families require while diverting many from shelter stays. The Community Care Grant program costs an average of $7,000 per family served and provides up to a year’s support. In contrast, the average stay of six months in a family shelter costs $11,439.
History and Background
By the end of 1997, the city had 350 families on their waiting list for emergency shelter. Once in shelter, families spent an average of 4-6 months before either moving on with an unknown outcome or being placed in permanent housing.
There was concern that providing additional shelter units would provide little relief. In addition, with the onset of welfare reform in the city and the imposition of a two-year time limit for cash benefits, some argued that families could ill afford extended stays in shelters.
The envisioned solution was to maximize efforts to help prevent families from needing to enter the shelter system altogether and to intervene at the earliest moment to help people achieve the goal of self-sufficiency. The strategy was seen as complementary to welfare reform and one that would also serve the goals of using existing resources, such as other public and community based providers, and maximizing housing opportunities in the private rental market. Thus, the demonstration project was approved to use state TANF resources:
We have a greater need than ever to help families facing homelessness to get the necessary services that prevent their having to enter a shelter system and that move them immediately toward the objective of permanent housing and the ability to support themselves. We must find ways to do this in the private unsubsidized housing market. We must utilize a new and different set of community institutions and family support systems than we have yet used to address homelessness. We must invest the limited funds we have in a way that leverages and builds the resources of communities and families. And we must make certain that everything we do is coordinated with, and contributes toward meeting, the self-sufficiency requirements of the new welfare system.
The city’s shelter system for families has a central intake site, where each receives a preliminary assessment. The majority of families seen at central intake are not immediately placed into shelter unless their situation is dire; instead they are placed on a wait list. Following the preliminary assessment, families may be offered the opportunity to participate in the city’s Community Care Grant program as an alternative to entering the shelter program.
The program serves families that are at imminent risk of homelessness. This includes families who are doubled up and those with a pending eviction. The adult family member(s) must be employed or be able to obtain employment. They are also assessed as to whether they are able to become and remain permanently housed and self-sufficient in a short period of time. Eligibility for the program is determined within 30 days.
Before officially entering the program, each family receives an in-depth assessment and a specially developed case plan. The family must agree to work with the Family Support Center and make progress on the family’s case plan.
Accepted families can elect to work with one of seven Family Support Centers located throughout the city. It is recommended that the family work with a program near their community of origin or the community in which the family intends to reside.
A grant of up to $7,000 is provided to the Family Support Center for each family that is referred by the Community Partnership. The Family Support Center uses $4,000 to finance the provision of transitional case management and can use the remaining $3,000 more flexibly to help the family transition quickly into permanent housing. If necessary, more resources can be provided to help re-house a family. However, additional expenditures must have pre-approval from the Community Partnership. The housing portion of the grant can cover security deposits, first month’s rent, a short term housing subsidy, furniture, utilities, or needed household items.
Through a Memorandum of Understanding the Family Support Centers agree to provide case management services until the family’s goals are met and to prioritize efforts to help the family obtain permanent housing as soon as possible. The Family Support Centers do not receive the final payments until the families actually obtain housing.
Several of the Family Support Centers have housing specialists on staff. This has proven useful as the staff have developed on-going relationships with landlords in their neighborhood and with the housing authority. The housing specialists keep abreast of available units in the neighborhood, advocate with the landlords on the family’s behalf, help the family manage paperwork, and resolve credit history issues. If the family has not been placed on the waiting list for a housing voucher, the agency will help them through that process. Some families entering the program are already eligible or have received a housing voucher, so the housing specialist helps them identify viable units. Other families are housed without a housing subsidy.
Case Management Services:
The transitional case management services focus on helping ensure that families will not have another housing crisis. This may include providing the family with help to develop a financial plan and helping them access community resources.
The Family Support Centers consists of a wide variety of agencies and programs that collaborate to provide easily accessible services to help support low-income families in a neighborhood setting. Because of this role in the community, the Family Support Centers can serve as a gateway to services that can help stabilize the family and promote the well-being of all the family members.
Because the services are available to community residents, the transitional case management services can also help foster the development of an on-going relationship with the programs offered by the Family Support Center. Thus, the neighborhood-based organizations can also serve as a frontline defense and helping agent should there be a crisis in the family’s future.
Building from the initial demonstration, the city has committed $1.43 million to the program over the last three years – primarily state TANF resources. The cost, including adapting services, is estimated at $7,186 for every family housed. This is equivalent to the cost of providing 116 days in shelter. In each year, more families have been successfully housed.
The provision of a grant with a value of up to $7,000 to a Family Support Center that successfully prevents a homeless stay is seen as a cost effective alternative to a "typical" stay in the city’s emergency shelter system. The typical length of stay in the city’s shelter system for a family is 186 days and costs $62 a day. An average length of stay, costs $11,439.
From 1998 to July, 2002:
• 275 families participated in the program
• 231 families exited the program
• 71% successfully housed (165 families)
• 12% terminated from the program (32 families) - terminations can result when the Family Support Center loses contact with the family, for noncompliance with the case plan, infrequent contact or substance abuse
If starting over, one administrator reports, he would do more at the front-end to build the political will behind the housing first approach so that the program could be implemented more broadly as an alternative to the more expensive shelter system. Engaging families earlier and preventing shelter stays lessens the strain on the existing shelter system. Furthermore, it avoids the occasionally challenging task of encouraging families to transition out of homelessness and into permanent housing. This has emerged as an issue when some families who do enter the shelter system are reluctant to begin the work necessary to secure "permanent" housing because they are often content with the scattered-site housing units that the city offers in the emergency shelter system. Implementing a "housing first" approach helps families avoid entering the emergency shelter system and creates a greater opportunity to use case management to help people retain the permanent housing they have secured.
For More Information, Contact:
Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness
801 Pennsylvania Avenue SE
Washington, DC 20003