Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Solomon’s Ticket out of Homelessness

(Image taken by Kevin B., a Wikipedia contributor)
As we have mentioned, on the virtual pages of the MDHA blog, Ending Homelessness, former Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (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 asking this very different open-ended question, we acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all approach is never the right one. Instead, solutions must match the needs of the person, more than one solution might be needed, and a progressively “lighter touch”, should be preferred wherever possible. This not only allows clients to get the precise help they need; it also allows the system to concentrate, better target, and more efficiently deploy 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.

Solomon’s* case is illustrative of just this idea. He was living in Tent City, since late November 2015. In a handwritten letter, he explained that he was originally from Camden, New Jersey, and had lived in Dallas for years, working for Campbell Soup, Pepsi and Lockheed Martin, as well for a local food pantry. At 67, he was still eager to work, but could not find a job. He was living off of a meager $600 a month in Social Security benefits, and in the meantime was helping out two different friends at Tent City, with the challenges they were dealing with.

In the same letter, Solomon explained that he had a sister back in Camden, who had invited him to live with her. This would end his homelessness quickly and permanently, and as a bonus, reunite him with the granddaughter he had not seen in two years. In essence, what Solomon was telling us was that he could self-resolve his homelessness. In this sense, Solomon is not the exception in the world of homelessness, but the rule. Experts estimate that as many as 70% of those who experience homelessness, experience it once, for a very short time and never again. They actually never “show up on the radar” of homeless service agencies! They self-resolve.

If you think about it, this makes sense. As Cindy Crain mentioned in the State of the Homeless Address 2016, most of us are not really “one paycheck away” from homelessness. Most of us have (if not financial, at least) social reserves we can take advantage of. We have a social network of family and friends we can call on in a time of need. Homelessness, especially ongoing homelessness, and particularly unsheltered homelessness, occur when poverty and financial crisis “crash into” the lack of that social network. When one can no longer utilize social reserves, when one’s social network has disintegrated, one can end up homeless. Now, Solomon still had that social network. The only problem was the social reserve he was invited to utilize was about 1,470 miles away! If only there was some way he could utilize this far off reserve…

Fortunately, last year, we founded the MDHA Flex Fund, with the generous support of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, who seeded the fund with $38,742. This fund is designed to cover these minor but impactful expenditures, that can help clients resolve their homelessness. Shavon Moore, our Continuum of Care Program Coordinator, had interviewed Solomon, had ensured he was in active case management, and that he had been accurately assessed and documented as homeless. She then completed the MDHA Flex Fund one-page form, documenting the specific need, and how filling it would help Solomon resolve his homelessness. She went online, and found that a Greyhound bus ticket from Dallas to Camden would cost a little more than $200. She added this to the form, and verified that this need could not be funded through other available resources. With the quote from the Greyhound website, she submitted the form to Rebecca Cox, our Vice President, who approved the request. Wayne Waslien, our CFO purchased the bus ticket online for Solomon. With that they ended his homelessness quickly and permanently. That bus ticket was quite literally Solomon’s ticket out of homelessness! 

Since the initial funding from United Way, we have received funding from the Dallas Baptist Association ($5,000), the Graham & Carolyn Holloway Family Foundation ($5,000), the Hillcrest Foundation, Bank of America, N.A., Trustee ($12,000), the M.B. and Edna Zale Foundation ($15,000), and the Wells Fargo Foundation ($5,000). We are also heartened by the fact that Mayor Mike Rawlings recently publicly called for contributions to the MDHA Flex Fund. We hope you too will get on board, and contribute. With your help, the MDHA Flex Fund will continue to provide literal and figurative tickets out of homelessness to many more folks, just like it did for Solomon. 

* Name changed to preserve the client’s privacy.

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