Friday, March 11, 2016

The “How To” of Building an Effective Homeless Response System

Over the course of the next two blog posts, we will review the rationale for building a homeless response system, and how MDHA has made progress in this area in the last twelve months. In a series of blog posts to follow these two, we will elaborate specifically on what is at the heart of every effective homeless response system, a Coordinated Access System, or CAS, and how our iteration of CAS is shaping up, as we speak.

As you know, the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance (MDHA) is a non-profit organization leading 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. It serves as the local Continuum of Care (CoC) lead agency, through which Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funded service providers are funded, and it administrates the local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), that tracks performance and drives improvement of service providers. Under the national strategic plan to end homelessness, Opening Doors, it is charged with transforming homeless services into a crisis response system that prevents homelessness and rapidly returns people who experience homelessness to stable housing.
Laura Zeilinger
(Courtesy of the Washington City Paper)
Former Executive Director of USICH, Laura Zeilinger argues that the essence of transforming homeless services into an effective unified homeless response system may be summed up in the right entity asking the right question: An effective homeless response system is one where individual programs no longer ask, "Will this person be successful in our program?" Rather, the system as a whole asks, “What solutions best match the needs of this person or household, and will end their homelessness quickly and permanently?"  

In this capacity, HUD has tasked each CoC with building a Coordinated Access System (CAS), at the heart of their homeless response systems. In CAS, all persons are assessed, using a common, uniform, objective and evidence based assessment tool, so they may be prioritized for service and matched with the services that will best help end their homelessness as quickly as possible. Wherever possible, persons are diverted from the system, by identifying means through which they can self-resolve, and where necessary connect to services outside of the homeless response system. Persons for whom this does not suffice, are placed on a housing priority list, and then matched with the programs that best fit their level of vulnerability and need. Housing programs populate their housing units exclusively from that list.

The results of asking this very different question, which follow a philosophy called progressive engagement, lead to more humane, more efficient, less disruptive and less costly solutions. Leading sociologist of homelessness, Dennis Culhane, states, “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.” This also allows the system to concentrate most of its costlier investments in time and money, in descending order, permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, emergency shelter, etc., on those individuals and families who really need them.
Dennis Culhane
(Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania)
For such a transformation to occur, much less to succeed, requires in Culhane’s words, “a new multi-agency commitment.” CoCs and their lead agencies on the local level and USICH on the national level do not have the power to force individual programs to take the necessary steps, and make the requisite changes to align themselves to a homeless response system. Even if they did, no meaningful change on this scale occurs by fiat. If this is true regarding programs funded through the CoC process and/or required to report into the HMIS system, where there are “levers” that can be “pulled” in the areas of funding and regulatory compliance, this is even truer regarding programs such as shelters that are not funded through this process, particularly those that do not receive any government funding. Such programs can only be brought on board through the recognition that it is in the best interest of their clients that they become part of a unified, effective homeless response system. CoCs and their lead agencies must guide them through that journey, and help them reach that destination.

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