Stem the Tide of Family Homelessness: Lessons from the NAEFH Conference and What We Can Do Locally

Having just got off the plane from a trip to Los Angeles for the annual National Alliance to End Family Homelessness Conference, I am filled with key buzzwords of the “new normal” and “best and promising practices”: data, outcomes, prevention, intensive case management and wrap-around services, critical time intervention, trauma-informed care, coordinated entry and rapid re-housing. Increasingly, family homelessness is being recognized and researched as a phenomenon that needs to be addressed locally as well as nationally. There is something deeply disturbing, even to any detractors on homelessness issues, when we know there are children homeless, hungry and insecure about where they will be sleeping each night. This should be unacceptable to everyone. We all want to help.

Over the past year I received five contacts (the latest one just today) from individuals/groups wanting to start a homeless shelter for families, and would I provide either technical assistance or share information.  Partly, I am flattered Safe Haven is considered a benchmark and recognized for our work and others want to emulate our success. But since I go to national conferences and read about trends, best practices, do the homework and review the research I always respond, “Not so fast.” I ask a series of questions: Do you know what population you want to serve? Why are you selecting this population? Do you know how you will serve them? Do you know who else is serving them? Do you know what you will do for your clients while they are in shelter and beyond? Do you know that shelter is a very expensive proposition? Do you know that although family homelessness is a lagging indicator, and we will see some increases, numbers have actually gone down? Do you know how to interpret the homelessness metrics (contested and complex data)? Have you talked to other homeless service providers in your area? Business and government leaders? Have they all agreed that there is a need for a shelter in your area? Have you considered investing funds in prevention and other housing options? Using churches and other faith community resources to shelter and serve homeless families and other innovative strategies? And do you have a source of funding (better yet, many sources of funding) that can be sustained over time?

In no case could any of these potential providers answer these questions. They wanted to help homeless individuals and families and felt called. But they only wanted to help in this way – and would not consider any more cost-effective ways to serve homeless families and could only respond to homelessness by thinking about shelters. Shelters do play an important role in helping those that fall through service gaps and have no other supports (e.g. personal, familial, and governmental) receive care and services. But why is our first response to homelessness, “let’s build more shelters!”?

Safe Haven is a well-established shelter that has a sustainable funding stream, trained staff, a track record of successful outcomes, demonstrated leadership around the issue of family homelessness, programs that provide rich services and educational opportunities and use evidence-based strategies and compassionate care.  The work we do is difficult and requires absolute commitment, and even well-established shelters like Safe Haven struggle to raise needed funds.

I challenge our community to consider other options to stem the tide of family homelessness. Prevention costs a fraction of what it costs to shelter a family. Rapid re-housing, as we learned from our own experience and from the national research presented at the conference, represents a new best practice that has proven to reduce family homelessness.  Again, this cost less than sheltering and can yield a better result. When families receive services in a home or apartment of their own, for those who are ready, they can learn better what they need to do to be successful. Rapid re-housing has a very high success rate in keeping families from returning to homelessness (8 to 9 out of 10 stay housed).  Coordinated entry is another best practice that moves us away from having multiple programs and multiple organizations to a systems change model.  Prevention, rapid re-housing, and coordinated entry are systems change models that are not only more cost-effective ways of serving homeless individuals and families, but they work.

So our community needs to ask do we want to only sustain the gaps in services or do we want to prevent the gaps in the first place and close those gaps we have more quickly? Do we have the community and political will to support systems change? When do we discuss improving those conditions that lead to family homelessness?

At the end of the conference I listened to one of the program officers from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (they have done great work in Seattle to reduce family homelessness) tell about how funders can’t support more organizations – but must align all funders to only fund best practices, outcomes and coordinated entry systems – away from individual programs toward systems change. There are communities where there has been the community and political will to actually reduce homelessness and it has worked. Not one of the solutions involved building more shelters.  While Safe Haven is expanding our space to serve more families in a measured way, our real goal is to expand our capacity to provide other options to meet the growing needs during a time when sustainability should be our guiding principle. This conversation should not be about property, but capacity.

What I learned from the conference encouraged me further to want to work across organizations to coordinate entry so that clients don’t waste their and our time, and we can get needed services to a family in need more quickly; to use best and promising practices (yes, along with love, compassion, and hope) with a well-trained staff so that we are not wasting time and funds on things that don’t work. I’d rather prevent homelessness than extend it. I’d rather get a family in their own housing as soon as is practical rather than have them live in a shelter longer than absolutely necessary. I want to advocate for families to have the opportunities and resources they need to be stable and housed – and independent.

Certainly we can shift the conversation away from creating more and more agencies, recreating the wheel and further stretching limited funding to using more effectively what we already have. We can do this by connecting, coordinating, and aligning care, intake, services, resources and processes. It is my hope that we can truly reduce family homelessness. From what I learned from my peers around the country that are succeeding in this vision, these are the things they are doing. Let’s learn from them. And each other.

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