How Our Shelter Began Focusing on Permanent Housing, And Started Ending Homelessness for Our Clients

When I joined the staff of Northern Virginia Family Service (NVSF) as the program manager of the SERVE Shelter in February 2010, I had many things to learn about the 60-bed facility for singles and families located in Manassas, Va., approximately 35 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. Though the beds were filled, it was evident that clients were staying for long periods of time, many up to six months or longer.

At that time, the shelter was focused on lengthening client’s stays so that there was more time to help connect them to benefits and community resources before leaving.  The work of connecting clients to TANF, Medicaid, SNAP, and other benefits was done by the case managers, and clients were asked to focus their energy on finding employment. But as I learned more about the system, I found housing was not the focus, and clients were being discharged because their time was up. There was no plan for where they would go or how they would stabilize in the community. Many, many clients returned for services with the same issues with little focus or direction.

In 2012, things started to change. Our shelter went through an expansion to 92 beds, and we had the opportunity to become a Housing First Model. (It seemed fitting that a shelter should focus on housing and that its goal should be to reduce the amount of time that an individual or family experienced homelessness.) However, some fairly large barriers stood in our way to implementing this model.

Our first conversations about shifting the system to a rapid re-housing model with the team at SERVE Shelter were not well received. The team questioned how could you take a homeless family without income and place them in a home. “Surely they would fail, and it would make things worse,” they said. The case management team was doubtful about the process. They feared that they would be doing more work and that if their clients failed to remain in stable housing, it would be reflection of their work. To quell these fears, I worked on a system design that would focus the case management work, adding more support for their process, and to help create stronger partnerships with families.

In this new system design, we added staffing positions to focus in on assessment and housing: a central intake worker, a housing locator, and a community case manager.

We also added some new tools that would help assess clients’ current needs in a more focused and accurate way: intake screen for literally homeless or prevention cases, housing barrier assessment form, and housing stabilization plan.

Assessment was the key component to the new approach. To begin to establish change, the case managers called everyone on the waitlist to determine their need for shelter services. For persons in need of homeless services, clients would now call the central intake worker and do an assessment over the phone. Clients were screened for either being literally homeless (needs housing services) or at risk for being homeless (needs prevention services). For families that were homeless, case managers would set an intake date and once that was completed, would complete a Housing Barrier Assessment form with the client. This tool identifies the barriers that clients were facing (e.g. number of evictions, credit issues, judgments, criminal past, etc.) and determines whether the case would be rated low, moderate, or high—or in other words, tailoring interventions and prioritizing services for the families who are most vulnerable and in the most need. This assessment helps both the housing locator and case managers focus their work for the families and the next steps.  Case managers also set the discharge date at the point of entry, which is 30 days.  Case managers are focused on getting families in and out of the shelter and into stable housing as quickly as possible.

The role of our housing locator is very specific—she is solely focused on housing. This position works with the clients: looking for potential landlords, looking for rooms to determine what housing option is best for their family, and ensures their eligibility for rentals and housing programs.  She meets with all clients upon entry into the system to conduct a Basics to Renting class, where clients learn about leases, how to be a good renter, and fair housing rights.  As families are getting ready to discharge into stable housing, they meet with the community case manager who will continue to work with them—who assists them with their journey to self-reliance.

How did all of this work for us?

We reduced our shelter stays from six months to 45 days. For our fiscal year 2014, we connected 600 people to housing (both with direct financial assistance and without) and have over 290 landlord relationships.

One thing that has helped with our success is our shared housing program. In our community, a three bedroom unit can cost as much as $1,900 a month—not an affordable option for clients. And high barrier families often do not qualify for traditional rental properties. That’s when our housing locator looks for housing options that would fit their needs.  One creative solution has been with shared housing. This is win-win solution which can help the community member avoid a potential housing crisis and, at the same time, end a housing crisis for another family.

The housing locator uses shared housing about 50 percent of the time with clients.  Of course, any shared housing situation—whether for individuals or families—is in compliance with local zoning codes, is never overcrowded, and everyone holds a lease. The housing locator ensures that these things are in place prior move-in.

Recently, a family of eight entered the shelter without identification or income.  The family was incredibly discouraged about their situation, but they never lost hope of getting into a home of their own. The housing locator and case manager worked with the family to assess their needs and what might be the barriers to housing. One issue would be finding a housing option large enough for a family of eight, another was identification. The Housing locator was referred to a landlord that was willing to work with the family. The landlord understood their barriers, which was lack of identification for some family members and no employment for the adults.  With housing identified, the case manager then worked on the identification issue and helped three members of the family find employment at a local hospital. With income and benefits, the housing locator worked with the landlord to negotiate a rent that would meet the family’s budget. NVFS assisted them with direct assistance on a short-term basis, linked them with a church organization that donated furniture, ensured they were connected to local food banks, and set up child care.

As they were signing their lease, it was evident that their new home gave them renewed hope. The family moved from the shelter into that home seven months ago. They remain in engaged with the community case manager and are working on further stabilizing themselves.


Gwen McQueeny is the deputy director of shelter and rapid rehousing at Northern Virginia Family Service


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