About Our Work, Housing Plans, and Housing First…

“We’re not homeless, we’re just not home yet.”

This positive quote recently came from a client, Art. It reminds us all that homelessness should be rare and temporary, not a defining characteristic. Art is currently sleeping in our shelter and working with a Case Manager to get into safe and affordable housing. There are many more like Art and many who have already made a successful transition out of homelessness.

Our staff of eighty-five reached 4,250 clients last year across our core programming. Every client has unique needs when we meet them, and Housing Plans are created based on what is likely to work best. Individuals become homeless for any number of reasons—not everyone has savings, a safety net of friends or family, or skills to recover from a setback or a series of gradual losses. Solutions can be as complex as causes, and availability of deeply affordable spaces is an ever-present challenge. Still, every success motivates our staff and clients to continue to create Housing Plans and work them until success is achieved.

Housing Plans are part of the work with every client. Many shelters in many places across the country were designed to be a place for sleeping so individuals weren’t on the streets. Over the years, shelters became default housing for many individuals, though that was never the intention. The goal of emergency shelter should be to focus on re-connecting people to housing as quickly as possible–Housing First.

(From the National Alliance to End Homelessness) Housing First is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. This approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues. Additionally, Housing First is based on the theory that client choice is valuable in housing selection and supportive service participation, and that exercising that choice is likely to make a client more successful in remaining housed and improving their life. Housing First does not require people experiencing homelessness to address the all of their problems including behavioral health problems, or to graduate through a series of services programs before they can access housing. Housing First does not mandate participation in services either before obtaining housing or in order to retain housing. The Housing First approach views housing as the foundation for life improvement and enables access to permanent housing without prerequisites or conditions beyond those of a typical renter. Supportive services are offered to support people with housing stability and individual well-being, but participation is not required as services have been found to be more effective when a person chooses to engage. Other approaches do make such requirements in order for a person to obtain and retain housing.

With this in mind, last year Front Steps made a change in our shelter service delivery. It became a requirement that ALL clients sleeping at the shelter enroll in case management. This change is how “housing first” work is being done in shelters across the nation, and our staff worked with support from the National Alliance to End Homelessness for the training needed for this transition.

Here’s one story about what happened next.

When the case management requirement went live in August 2019, we had identified our “top 25 stayers.” These were clients who had been here the longest, using day/night shelter services, but not engaged in case management to secure housing. These were individuals truly experiencing “chronic” homelessness. In the weeks and months since, we have HOUSED almost 80% of these clients. “Jack” first slept at the shelter in March of 2008. He was 58 years old when we housed him in January of this year. (We housed 29 clients in January 2020. Isn’t that fantastic?) ”Joe” was 67 when he was housed on December 20th of 2019, he had been sleeping at the shelter off and on since September of 2012. Many of these clients were experiencing homelessness for years before we met them—six of the men housed were in their 60s, and eight were in their 50s. Here’s what happened for “Frank.” His case manager started with the basics, getting Frank a birth certificate and ID, a voucher for a vision test and glasses, and an appointment with Goodwill to seek work. Frank secured his food handler’s license in November 2019, but he wasn’t getting hired. Frank is over sixty, and, during his twenty-six years of homelessness, he let his beard and hair grow really long. When asked what he might be able to do to improve his job hunting odds, Frank admitted, “maybe a haircut?” His case manager arranged for a haircut, and Frank got a job shortly after. He has opened a bank account and moved into an apartment. He has health insurance from work. Has a phone and pays the bill. This is why Front Steps exists, to help individuals like Frank. A shelter is a place to sleep in safety, but we want don’t want the shelter to become anyone’s home. We work to find the best path to stable housing for every client.