Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Assets That Need to Be Invested In, Not Problems That Need to Be Solved

Monday morning I was listening to KERA, and I heard this great interview Stella Chavez conducted with incoming superintendent of the Fort Worth ISD, Kent Paredes Scribner: Towards the end of the interview he said something simple but profound, “We need to treat our children not as problems that need to be solved, but assets that need to be invested in.” It struck me that this statement and the idea behind it are tremendously relevant to homelessness, poverty and many of the challenges we deal with today. Here are just a few examples:

Kent Paredes Scribner
(Courtesy of the Fort Worth ISD)
Are persons with a criminal background, problems to be solved? If so, than it makes sense to erect as many barriers as possible to keep the “problem” away from us. If, however, they are assets that need to be invested in, than HB1510, which makes it much easier for these folks to obtain housing, makes a lot of sense.

Are tent cities problems that need to be solved? If so, it makes sense to forcibly evict all of the persons staying there. Who cares if this does not solve their homelessness, and just means they set up camp somewhere else? If, however, they are assets that need to be invested in, than it makes sense to get to know them as individuals, build rapport and trust with them, and connect them to housing.

Are persons experiencing homelessness problems that need to be solved? If so, we view them all as the same, and the focus needs to be getting them off the street, and then “readying” them for housing through traditional lengthy and costly programs. If, however, they are assets that need to be invested in, we need to treat them as individuals, and the focus needs to be on empowering each person with necessary and cost effective tools that fit their situation. In other words, instead of asking, does this person fit our program, we ask, what solutions best match the needs of this person or household, and will end their homelessness quickly and permanently?

The thing is there is nothing new here, after all. It all goes back to the Golden Rule. Do YOU want to be treated as a problem that needs to be solved, or an asset that needs to be invested in? Treat other persons, regardless of their circumstances, background, life choices or luck, the same.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The MDHA Flex Fund

So, here is the next thing I shared with folks I met at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’, “Chat. Connect. Repeat. Speed Networking Event.” The theme for the event was “Referral Guide: Criminal History Backgrounds”:

The Need

The question effective homeless response systems ask is: “What solutions best match the needs of this person or household, and will end their homelessness quickly and permanently?"

This question leads to the most humane, most efficient, less disruptive and less costly solutions. Leading sociologist of homelessness, Dennis Culhane, states[i], “The majority of homeless households are able to resolve their housing emergencies in a relatively brief time. Given this, providing such households time limited assistance either avoids or limits the private trauma and public expense of a homeless episode.”

There are many challenges consumers deal with, that prevent them from self-resolving their housing emergencies in a relatively brief time. These include, access to critical documents (photo identifications, birth certificates, social security cards, documentation of homelessness), security deposits, transportation (bus passes or car repair), medical and dental costs (glasses, medication, medical equipment, wheelchairs), job placement, job related expenses (tools, uniforms, boots, certification, licensing), mainstream benefits (SNAP, TANF, SSI, SSDI), food assistance, legal services, basic furniture and household items. Most of these minor but impactful expenditures may not be covered through existing federal, state and local grant funds.

The Solution – the MDHA Flex Fund

During her tenure as Executive Director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition (TCHC), Cindy J. Crain, current MDHA President and CEO, designed the Direct Client Services Fund (DCSF), in partnership with Directions Home Fort Worth and United Way of Tarrant County. This was designed to provide case managers with a fund of last resort to pay for expenses associated with resolving the type of challenges discussed above. Clients served must be enrolled in a program or participating in active case management, and the maximum award is $800 per annum. Case managers are required to document the need for the funds, how they will help the client self-resolve, and why the need cannot be funded through other available resources.

Kiley Gosselin[ii] cites a recently completed five year pilot program in Washington State, where flexible funding played a major role. The success of this program provides powerful evidence for the success of flex funds:

In 2009, with the financial backing of the Gates Foundation, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) launched a five year pilot program testing the success of a survivor-centered, Housing First approach to preventing homelessness for survivors of domestic violence and their families… Funding for the pilot was flexible, allowing advocates to address survivors’ self-identified needs including transportation, child care, school or employment supplies and more direct help such as rental assistance…The results of the pilot… are impressive. Of pilot participants, 96% remain stably housed after 18 months… And the cost to the participating programs… also went down - 76% of survivors received only minimal services… at minimal costs… Participating programs repeatedly cited the flexible spending and organizational change brought about by the survivor-driven approach… The ability to offer survivors the things they needed… was powerful…

Gosselin’s actual examples of how such assistance works are edifying:

One advocate cited an instance where a survivor had obtained a new job and spent her own funds for a new apartment and security deposits, but was told on her first day of work she needed to purchase steel-toed boots at a cost of $100 in order to keep the job. Just $100 of the pilot program funds allowed for the purchase of the boots, supporting her ability to maintain employment – critical to her ability to maintain stable housing.  Another advocate echoed that the ability to buy new tires for a survivor, whose abuser had slashed hers, was a small expenditure that allowed the survivor to attend legal hearings required to maintain her housing and meet the obligations of other program services. Without the flexibility to cover these minor but impactful expenditures, advocates are often challenged with having to identify new housing options for the survivor – a much more difficult and costly endeavor than a pair of boots or new set of tires…

Gosselin aptly summarizes, in a statement MDHA would wholeheartedly endorse: “While few homeless service providers are lucky enough to have a Bill Gates in their backyard, the pilot highlights that the power of flexible philanthropic dollars, even in small amounts, is real and worth pursuing…

In her 2015 State of the Homeless Address, Crain called on funders to partner with MDHA in establishing such a fund for Dallas and Collin Counties. United Way of Metropolitan Dallas answered this call, and stepped forward to fund a pilot program, modeled closely on the above DCSF, to be called the MDHA Flex Fund. They have given MDHA $38,742 of seed money for this purpose. MDHA will need an estimated $250,000 annually to fully fund this program.

Interested in giving to the MDHA Flex Fund? Contact David Gruber, Development and Communications Director at 469-222-0047 or


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What I Shared at United Way’s Speed Networking Event: Housing Folks with a Criminal Background is about to Become a Lot Easier in Texas

Today I participated in a really cool networking event at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, “Chat. Connect. Repeat. Speed Networking Event.” The theme for the event was “Referral Guide: Criminal History Backgrounds”. I got to meet some great providers, who are doing excellent work in this area. We each were able to share what each of our organizations do, and how we can mutually learn how to help each other in this area.
Carol Lucky, CEO of Child and Family Guidance Centers, at Chat. Connect. Repeat. (Picture courtesy of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas)
So, first I shared what we do: MDHA leads the development of an effective homeless response system that will make the experience of homelessness in Dallas and Collin Counties rare, brief, and non-recurring.

Then I shared just two system level items we are working on to help with folks’ reentry into society, after coming out of prison. I told them about HB 1510. Here is the summary of this important bill from the Texas Legislature Website:

House Bill 1510 amends the Property Code to establish that a cause of action does not accrue against a landlord or a landlord's manager or agent solely for leasing a dwelling to a tenant with a criminal record. The bill does not preclude a cause of action for negligence in leasing if the tenant was convicted of certain more serious offenses or is subject to sex offender registration and the landlord, manager, or agent knew or should have known of the conviction or adjudication.

Let’s “translate” that into English (with the obvious disclaimer, that I am NOT an attorney, and so none of this should be construed as legal advice). As Calvin Coolidge famously said, the business of the American People is business. And the business of business is to make money. Unfortunately, a corollary to that, is that folks do not want to get sued out of business. So, my business may be to rent out my apartments. However, if I think that if I rent to you, I could get sued, guess who I will not be renting an apartment to? You.

Why might I get sued? Well, say you have a criminal background, and I rent you an apartment. Then you beat up your neighbor. Your neighbor, in our litigious society, might claim that I was negligent simply for renting you the apartment, and I could get sued. Makes sense, right?

Well, no, not really. The facts do not bear out such a concern. As the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition argued in advocating for this legislation, studies have actually shown that, “leasing property to someone with a criminal history who meets the application criteria actually serves to decrease the risk that he or she will commit a new offense… Housing stability has been identified as one of the most critical factors in preventing recidivism and parole violation…”  So, what HB1510 does is remove the danger of that type of lawsuit. Property owners will no longer have to face the danger of a lawsuit, simply for renting property to someone with a criminal history (with some obvious exclusions). This law goes into effect on 1/16/16.

Now, getting the law passed is just the start. Now, we need to educate everyone, landlords, social service providers (especially front line case workers) and consumers about this. The beauty of this is that this is a system change, that requires little if any investment. We don’t need another costly program or complicated grant to use this law to decrease homelessness. We just need to increase knowledge across the system. 

What else did I share with the folks I met with today? Well, we’ve gone a little long, so in the next blog post I will tell you all about that.

Monday, August 10, 2015

(Really) Coping With Tent City (and Homelessness, In General) by Building an Effective Homeless Response System

Two-three months ago Cindy Crain, MDHA President and CEO pulled together a multi-agency Outreach Taskforce to help the folks living in the encampment under I-45. We have been meeting regularly to methodically and thoughtfully address this challenge, with the ultimate goal, of connecting every one of those folks to housing.

On Wednesday morning, MDHA Vice President, Rebecca Cox, along with other members of the Taskforce, was doing her regularly scheduled weekly visit with the folks at the encampment. She discovered something she had not seen during previous visits – a one year old baby.  Rebecca texted Cindy, and they decided then and there that that child and her mother would NOT spend another night there. It turned out that the mother had been connected to housing already. Why was she still there? She needed about $50 for the apartment application fee. This was a classic case of the agency connecting her to housing not being able to pay for that fee due to the specifications of their housing grant. Cindy immediately had cut a check for this. Rebecca picked it up, and hand-delivered it, and the problem was solved.  

Courtesy of Edd Eason, CoC Chair
This is just the type of small expense that often prevents folks from resolving their homelessness situation, and which necessitates a quick, nimble, red-tape-free "Flex Fund." This is one of the programs Cindy mentioned to me her first day on the job in Dallas. She called for it explicitly in her State of the Homeless Address, and we incorporated it into the Continuum of Care Strategic Work Plan. United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, stepped up to the plate, and offered to fund a pilot program for just this purpose. Officially this program hasn’t even begun yet, and we have already helped one mother and her child with it! I will be writing more here and elsewhere about the idea of flex funds, and how they can help make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.

On Friday, following careful and methodical work these last two-three months, the same Taskforce was able to connect a good number of folks in the encampment to housing. The Taskforce members will continue to work with the others to connect more and more of them to housing. As part of this effort, Cindy had invited Christopher Herring, of the University of California–Berkeley to advise us, homeless advocates, and community leaders on this issue. 

Chris, who has done extensive field research on tent cities, delivered a fascinating, erudite and down to earth presentation titled, “Coping With Tent City” during our “Hard Conversation” at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas (co-sponsored by CitySquare), with about eighty people in attendance. He talked about commonalities and differences in the roots, nature and character of such encampments, and the constructive and less constructive responses to them. His main argument is that encampment growth correlates not with rises in poverty and homelessness, rather with criminalization of various acts associated with homelessness. This pushes folks experiencing homelessness figuratively and literally to the margins.

You can read more about Friday’s exciting developments and Chris’ presentation in this great piece by our good friend, Tasha Tsiaperas, on the Dallas Morning News blog: Social workers find housing for 21 people living in homeless camp under I-45 -  Tasha references a promising development. The Justice Department just announced last week, that they are taking legal action to contest laws that criminalize homelessness, as violations of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Hopefully, this will encourage other communities to approach this issue in a more constructive way, as we are here in Dallas. It’s about time we as a nation, solve problems and not just slap ill-fitting dehumanizing “band-aids” on symptoms. How do you do that? You do that, by building an effective homeless response system, as we are doing at MDHA today.