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Ending Family Homelessness Initiative: Providing Rapid Re-housing to Families in Washington
Solutions Brief | September 9, 2014
Files: Ending Family Homelessness Initiative: Providing Rapid Re-housing to Families in Washington (PDF | 227 KB | 7 pages)
Ending Family Homelessness Initiative: Providing Rapid Re-housing to Families in Washington
In January 2014, every county in the State of Washington received funding from the Washington Department of Commerce as well as commitments of support from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and employment service agencies to rapidly re-house families experiencing homelessness. This Initiative came about through the efforts of a public-private partnership between philanthropy, advocacy leaders, and state officials. The Ending Family Homelessness Initiative provides one example of how innovative states are beginning to break through housing and employment service silos to more effectively assist families experiencing homelessness.
The Ending Family Homelessness Initiative (Initiative) provides $5 million in state funds and leverages $5 million in matching dollars to provide rapid re-housing assistance to families experiencing homelessness in Washington State. Rapid re-housing providers funded by the Department of Commerce are expected to work closely with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) agencies and employment service providers to ensure families have the employment and income support services that will help them escape homelessness quickly and secure stable employment.
The coordination of state-funded housing, income, and employment service programs is likely to improve outcomes for families beyond what can be achieved by rapid re-housing providers working alone. It can also change the culture of how the service systems work with families, providing a more integrated housing and employment intervention.
Washington State Department of Commerce provided pilot funding for the rapid re-housing program to five diverse communities in April 2013. This allowed state officials to prepare for the January 2014 statewide implementation of the program by identifying and addressing implementation issues and challenges experienced by the pilot communities. This paper provides a brief overview of the Ending Family Homelessness Initiative, with a specific focus on the key public and private stakeholders and the lessons that emerged from the five pilot communities.
Key Partners – State Agencies
Department of Commerce (Commerce) is the Washington state agency that oversees investments in housing and economic development. Commerce provides significant funding for affordable housing to local communities and contracts with nonprofit providers across the state to serve people experiencing homelessness. Commerce has a longstanding commitment to investigating and supporting proven interventions to address homelessness, including rapid re-housing. In addition to many other functions, Commerce also has a contract with the Department of Social and Health Services to provide employment services, Community Jobs, to families receiving TANF assistance. Community Jobs provides transitional employment to TANF recipients in need of work experience.
Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is the agency charged with administering TANF along with other programs designed to improve the health and well-being of vulnerable individuals and families. The TANF program provides cash assistance and work supports to low-income families with children. A primary goal of the TANF program is improving the self-sufficiency of low-income families by helping parents connect to employment.
DSHS develops Individual Responsibility Plans with parents who receive TANF assistance. These Plans outline the work activities that parents are expected to meet in order to retain cash assistance. Work activities in the Individual Responsibility Plans are intended to address the individualized needs of families that will enable parents to enter the workforce and achieve greater self-sufficiency. DSHS also provides work supports, such as child care. DSHS may connect families to other support services, such as alcohol and drug treatment or mental health counseling, if an assessment deems the services are needed to help the family achieve self-sufficiency. DSHS provides limited employment services directly and contracts with Commerce and the Economic Security Department to deliver employment services to families receiving TANF assistance.
Economic Security Department is the state agency responsible for administering Unemployment Compensation to workers who have lost employment. The agency also provides WorkSource, services designed to help unemployed individuals find employment and access job training. DSHS contracts with Economic Security to provide WorkSource employment services to families relying on TANF.
Key Partners - Private and Philanthropic
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is internationally known for its evidence-based, solution-focused philanthropic efforts that are designed to craft lasting, global change. Among its many initiatives is a strategy aimed at reducing family homelessness in the Puget Sound area in Washington State.
The Foundation works closely with state leaders and Building Changes to bring about the system change necessary to end family homelessness. It provides funding to Commerce, DSHS, and the Governor’s Office to support staff positions dedicated to improving coordination across state agencies as they work to assist the most vulnerable Washington families, including families experiencing homelessness. In partnership with Building Changes and state partners, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has convened national leaders, state and local officials, advocates, and homeless service providers to investigate and promote the adoption of the most promising strategies to end family homelessness in Puget Sound and throughout the state.
Building Changes is a nonprofit intermediary that works with state and local government officials, philanthropic leaders, and homeless service providers to end family homelessness in Washington State. Building Changes has a long history of identifying and promoting successful strategies to end family homelessness, including the use of rapid re-housing.
Ending Family Homelessness Initiative
Building Changes, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, convened national experts, Washington state officials, and state advocacy leaders in February 2013 to explore how TANF resources could be used to expand rapid re-housing in Washington State. Soon after that meeting, Building Changes was invited to work with state officials to help craft a policy proposal for Governor Inslee’s FY 2014 budget that would provide dedicated TANF resources to rapidly re-house TANF-eligible homeless families statewide.
Governor Inslee’s FY 2014 budget included a proposal to commit $10 million of TANF resources to expand rapid re-housing for TANF-eligible families throughout the state. The final budget did not include the $10 million in TANF funds for the Ending Family Homelessness Initiative; however, the final budget did commit $5 million from the Department of Commerce budget. In addition counties are required to provide a 100 percent match for the state funds. Funds from the Ending Family Homelessness Initiative are intended to provide rapid re-housing services to TANF-eligible families. Commerce is also encouraging local communities to dedicate other state and local homeless assistance resources to expand rapid re-housing to serve non-TANF-eligible families experiencing homelessness.
The Initiative funds can be used for housing search, landlord negotiation, rental assistance, and home-based case management. Rapid re-housing providers can also use the funds to provide up to 3 months of back rent. DSHS has directed local TANF administrators to work closely with providers and homeless service systems to ensure all TANF-eligible families receive the services that TANF agencies can provide and that families are eligible to receive.
Rapid re-housing providers are working closely with TANF caseworkers to ensure that the Individual Responsibility Plans reflect what families need to achieve both housing and employment stability. Rapid re-housing providers also coordinate closely with WorkSource and Community Jobs providers to quickly connect parents to employment so they can make the rental payments independently in the near term.
In an effort to promote the use of best practices, state officials and Building Changes provide training on rapid re-housing. They have brought in successful practitioners from other states to provide technical assistance on rapid re-housing and progressive engagement. Homeless service providers, employment service providers, and local TANF agency officials attend the trainings and participate in discussions around strategies to improve practice. This helps create a cohesive vision for how the Initiative should work at the local level and what the role of each service system should be. Building Changes and Commerce will also be working with local homelessness experts to provide individualized technical assistance in each county.
Emerging Lessons from Pilot Communities
Initial funding for the Ending Family Homelessness Initiative was provided to five diverse counties in April 2013 by the Department of Commerce. Grantees were asked to provide rapid re-housing services to families receiving TANF cash assistance and to work closely with TANF and employment service agencies to meet the goals of the Initiative: helping families move quickly out of homelessness with rapid re-housing assistance and helping them achieve stable housing and employment.
Building Changes worked with Commerce and state agency partners to provide training and to support implementation of rapid re-housing for TANF-eligible families in the five pilot communities. The five pilot communities have been rapidly re-housing families for approximately one year. In this relatively short period of time, local practitioners have reported some emerging findings, several of which are outlined below.
Rapid Re-housing. Across the five pilot communities, families that are reliant on TANF cash assistance and have multiple barriers to housing have moved into housing with rapid re-housing assistance. This includes families who were re-housed directly from living in campgrounds, cars, and outdoor locations. One practitioner expressed surprise that some of the families with significant housing barriers succeeded in maintaining housing. She noted that due to these housing barriers, these families would previously have been referred to transitional housing rather than to rapid re-housing, and spent much longer periods of time homeless.
There has been a great deal of concern expressed by providers regarding the best way to provide temporary rental assistance to rapidly re-house families. There is an expectation that most families are able to transition off of rental assistance within six months. Some providers are concerned that the withdrawal of rent assistance after six months creates a jolting cliff effect when families that have become accustomed to receiving rental assistance are suddenly expected to cover 100 percent of the rent on their own. This has led to some interest in providing rent assistance for a shorter period of time or slowly tapering off rent assistance with families gradually increasing the amount they contribute to rental costs over time.
Providers are working to tailor the provision of rental assistance and supportive services to families’ needs in a manner that is consistent with a progressive engagement approach. This involves providing a minimal amount of assistance initially and extending or intensifying it on an as-needed basis with referrals to more intensive interventions (such as permanent rental assistance or transitional housing) if rapid re-housing is proven to be insufficient to help families achieve housing stability.
Working with TANF agencies. One of the most dramatic changes for rapid re-housing providers is the requirement that they establish a close working relationship with TANF agency staff. One TANF agency director reported being aware of a wide array of resources to help families on the TANF caseload, but being largely unfamiliar with local housing and homelessness resources. Some of the rapid re-housing providers meet with local TANF agency caseworkers on a weekly basis to discuss challenges serving individual families. Much of the initial work is focused on building a common language and gaining greater familiarity with each other’s services. This takes time and, as both systems become familiar with one another, they become more efficient in serving families.
The two service systems’ missions can be considered complementary, but they are also very different. The TANF agency is primarily focused on helping parents move quickly into employment and sustaining that employment. The rapid re-housing provider is focused on helping families move into housing and sustaining that housing. There seems to be an evolving understanding that addressing the needs in sequence makes sense: housing helps to create the stability needed to facilitate employment. However, it is also critical that employment is clearly delineated as a primary goal very early and becomes a central focus of work with parents as quickly as possible.
It also seems important to keep the housing, income, and employment service systems engaged throughout the full process. It is easy to imagine that the TANF and employment service agencies may be less involved when families are seeking housing and rapid re-housing providers may be prepared to transition off of providing follow-up case management as families move into employment. Creating a fully integrated employment and housing intervention may require that each service sector remain engaged with the family from initial contact through achievement of stable housing and employment.
The employment and housing service systems seem to have different philosophical approaches or organizational cultures around how to work with families. In many ways, the delivery of TANF services is compliance-oriented; families are expected to act and fulfill certain obligations or their cases are closed. Homeless service providers, particularly those who are primarily focused on helping people quickly connect to housing, are often very proactive and adopt a “whatever it takes approach” to engaging and maintaining contact with families. Since the systems are expected to work together to help families meet their goals, it may be necessary for one or both systems to change how they connect to families; or at a minimum to understand each other’s approach or culture.
Providers report that one of the primary strengths of the Ending Family Homelessness Initiative is that the collaboration across the housing and employment service systems has resulted in each system working in concert with one another; there are now multiple actors working toward a common outcome for families. This has allowed each system’s work with families to be more effective as it is supported and reinforced by its local partners. It can also result in richer, more meaningful support services for families.
Improving Families’ Employment Outcomes. One of the lessons emerging for rapid re-housing providers is how challenging and important it is to connect families to work. Because the program is designed to provide limited rent assistance, it is critical that families get connected to work that will allow them to quickly assume rental costs. This is easier for parents who have fewer employment barriers and are motivated to work. Parents who have more limited work experience face greater difficulty and may require more time and support to find employment. One rapid re-housing provider reported that their local partnership has been very successful in helping parents find employment, but they now saw a critical need to focus on helping parents maintain the jobs they find.
Many of the families reliant on TANF assistance do not have employment as a short-term goal in their Individual Responsibility Plan, which has required some adjustment by the pilot communities. In some cases, a family member has a disability that makes it difficult for the parent to find employment. In those cases, enrollment in Supplemental Security Income (SSI), not employment, is the expected outcome. In other families, there is a child under 12 months old. Other families are able to pay rent independently without employment. As an example, one parent transitioned off of short-term rent assistance and the TANF caseload with receipt of child support.
All of this has been part of the learning curve for both rapid re-housing providers and TANF agency staff as both service systems adjust to the outcomes they are expected to achieve through their collaborative work with families. Since families in the Initiative are expected to pay rent on their own very quickly after being re-housed, employment is a necessity for most families and cannot be delayed. This has implications for the family’s Individual Responsibility Plan. Even if a family is exempt from work requirements under the TANF program, they will require employment services in order to secure employment to pay their rental costs in the near term under the Ending Family Homelessness Initiative. For most families employment is part of the intervention and is an expected outcome in the short-term so that families can pay for housing on their own when the rental assistance ends.
The development of a core understanding of the role of each system partner, their agency’s mission and the rules they are required to follow, has been critical to the success of the pilot communities who were first to implement the Ending Family Homelessness Initiative. It has provided the basis for negotiation across the local service systems that enable the frontline staff to craft an intervention that is client-centered and helps families access the right mix of resources and support to escape homelessness and sustain housing.
The State of Washington is transforming how it responds to family homelessness. The expected, or preferred, intervention for the majority of families is rapid re-housing. Both public and private leaders are helping to guide the transformation of local homeless service systems and using lessons learned from early implementers of the approach to help providers in other communities shape their own practices. The innovative partnership that Washington state officials have crafted across state programs, both at the state and local levels, and in conjunction with private leaders, serves as a useful model for other innovative state leaders committed to ending family homelessness.
For More Information
2014 E. Madison, Suite 200
Seattle, WA 98122
Housing Assistance Unit
Community Services and Housing Division
Department of Commerce
1011 Plum Street
P.O. Box 42525
Olympia, WA 98504-2525