The Great Debate on Scattered Sites has resurfaced, this time with additional language in the Emergency Assistance line item and in the shelter’s scope of services. The state first started using scattered sites back in July of 1993, in response to the growing housing crisis and subsequent demand for shelter. The scattered site model offered a fast way to get units on line, a cheaper alternative to motels and congregates, and a more housing based-transitional model which reduces the negative impacts of homelessness on children and families. A significant number of scattered site units were added to the shelter stock in 2004, in the Romney Administration’s efforts to get out of motels. When the shelters were reprocured in 2008, under the Patrick Administration, there was a deliberate effort to add more scattered site units as part of the 5 year plan to end homelessness. An article on MASS Live, dated December 12, 2008 explains:
Recently, the DTA’s philosophical (and financial) priorities have shifted away from the temporary congregate shelter – the sometimes crowded or bunk-bedded ones we typically associate with shelters – to scattered-site shelters; that is, individual apartments. Essentially, the DTA plans to whittle away at the existing shelter space in favor of a solution to homelessness that involves apartments and permanent housing. Much of this shift is based on some nice-looking results from the model known as Housing First.
Presently, there are 2,000 family shelter units in the EA system- 1,200 are “scats” and 800 are in congregate facilities (and of course we must not forget the 1,618 motel rooms currently occupied by families in the EA system- but that is another topic.)
Over the past 19 years, the scattered site model has fallen in and out of favor with policy makers. The current thought is that the system is unbalanced- under-stocked with congregate units and too many scattered sites (and way too many motel rooms and way not enough HOUSING). Data shows that lengths of stay are longer in scattered sites- but as far as I know, the data has not been fully analyzed to determine the reasons why (geographic differences, larger households, greater barriers, etc). But at a time when the state considered time limits to shelter, long lengths of stay are not looked upon kindly. DHCD officials have been heard to say that there is not enough oversight in scattered sites. And there are often mutterings of family’s motivations to move out of scattered sites. There are truths and contradictions to most of the arguments, like with anything, we should not generalize as each program, each unit and each family is different. But obviously, there is doubt about the program model within the legislature as evident by the insertion of the following language in the FY13 state budget:
the department shall endeavor to convert scattered site units to congregate units and, as allowed by demand, reduce the overall number of shelter beds through the reduction of scatter site units;
The Administration declares that it embraces the Housing First philosophy…and that there is an agenda to create more affordable housing. The scattered site model is quite “housing first-esque” and “supportive housing-ish”. So when I read that language or hear the negative murmurs, I wonder why we are not trying to convert scattered sites into supportive housing and why we are not looking at more creative ways to use this housing stock, landlord pool, workforce and programming in a more creative way- across the system. What are scattered site providers doing that is working? What is the perspective of families in scattered site units? Could the rolling stock model be utilized to minimize a family’s transitions? Should we increase the number of units to reduce the motel number? Should scats be considered “transitional housing”? Would program fees reduce costs and, if implemented correctly, support the families to transition out of homelessness? Could some programs specialize to meet the needs of distinct sub-populations that have barriers such as chronic health issues and disabilities, or criminal records? A group of scattered site providers met a while back to discuss some ideas. Here are the notes from that meeting.
Meanwhile, a few programs have begun to pilot putting two families in one scattered site unit and utilizing scattered site units as an incentive in congregate settings- as a transitional step. Both are practices are used in the Teen Living Program system which focus more on assessments and triaging. Both shelter staff and families have had positive experiences (and challenges) with this approach and subsequently, language was added into the scope of services to allow more programs to utilize this model. The scope language reads:
Utilization of Scattered Site Units:
DHCD will allow current scattered site apartments to be used as
shared-living scattered sites. This would involve placing more than
one family in an adequately sized apartment. DHCD will work with
current Contractors who are using this model to learn best practices
and plan to work with additional Contractors who are open to continuing
to pilot this model in FY 13.
We caution that shared-living scattered sites are not for every program and every family. There are risks and liabilities, but there are certainly benefits. It reduces overall systems costs; can be less isolating for the families; and it can support families to consider or test out shared living opportunities which may provide a path our of homelessness. We encourage shelter providers to read about the experiences and practices of Crossroads Family Shelter in East Boston and Emmaus Inc in Haverhill. The Center for Human Development also implemented a shared apartment model as they adapted to working with young parents at the start of FY12. Families in the program reported having a “house-mate” as a strength of the program. Here is a re-post of the write up regarding their experience of CHD adapting to working with young families.
Please continue to contact us with ideas regarding best practices and approaches around other specific issues, including scattered sites. And stay tuned for more!