- Posted by EmpowerNonprofit
- On December 11, 2017
Recently, I had a great conversation with my former boss, Susan Ban, who is the executive director of ShelterCare in Eugene, Oregon. Working with Susan, I participated in several cutting-edge programs for fighting homelessness, including some that utilized transitional housing.
She informed me that ShelterCare had been awarded a new grant to provide rent assistance and other support for homeless individuals with mental illness. This was great news, but not an unusual achievement for an organization providing supportive housing for several hundred people. But what caught my attention was the funders—health care providers Kaiser Permanente and PeaceHealth—and the fact that the grant would pay for transitional not permanent housing.
The homelessness services landscape is constantly shifting. In part, this is because nonprofits like ShelterCare aren’t afraid to test innovative, evidence-based solutions. But the flux is also the result of a funding environment—driven by federal priorities—that periodically changes focus. For example, federal funds now prioritize permanent solutions that quickly get homeless individuals into housing. That has resulted in a focus on Housing First and permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals.
Permanent supportive housing is effective and worth the investment, but this shift has left other homelessness solutions with a shrinking pool of monetary support. Particularly significant is the relatively low investment now being made in transitional housing.
There was a time when transitional housing solutions were the norm for working with homeless clients fighting behavioral health challenges. Temporary housing was often a part of the treatment package, as was the promise of access to permanent housing once recovery (or at least stability) was achieved.
Low-barrier Housing First strategies usurped many programs following this strategy. This isn’t surprising. Low-barrier housing coupled with intensive wraparound support is effective for many chronically homeless individuals with behavioral health problems—but not all.
Some homeless individuals battling severe persistent mental illness or physical health challenges are not immediately ready to sign an apartment lease and live independently. Another problem is the limited number of subsidized permanent supportive housing units available; long waiting lists are the norm in most American cities. How do we serve the thousands of vulnerable homeless individuals who need to be quickly and safely housed and treated, but for whom permanent supportive solutions are not currently an option?
In many cities, transitional housing—employed as a bridge to more permanent options—is making a comeback, though with a twist. For example, ShelterCare’s project with Kaiser Permanente and PeaceHealth will employ Housing First principles, but individuals will participate in the program for only six to 12 months. During that time, they will live in an apartment and receive intensive wraparound support and access to medical and mental health treatment. In addition, housing specialists will help clients identify permanent housing opportunities and remove all housing barriers, including obtaining ID and cleaning up credit history problems.
Hopefully, this Oregon initiative is an indication of where funders nationwide are moving in the fight to end homelessness. The active participation of health care providers—who see dramatically reduced utilization and costs when chronically homeless individuals are housed and treated—is particularly heartening. But another necessary step is offering providers more flexibility in using their funding, no matter the source. Homelessness is a terribly complex issue and no one solution is good for everybody. Local communities and agencies should have the ability to allocate funding to a variety of needs, matching individuals to solutions—in the process saving money and lives.