The next of the recommendations contained in Homes for Families’ 2014 Visioning Day Report point toward the basic principle that EVERY CHILD NEEDS A SAFE PLACE TO CALL HOME; IT’S JUST THE RIGHT THING. Until we have developed an ample supply of housing that families can afford, and we are able to provide robust prevention and stabilization services, our state’s safety net shelter system will remain a critical tool to keep our children safe. Our specific recommendations based on the input from Visioning Day are:
- Implement a holistic and strength-based assessment and triage system at the “front door” of the Emergency Assistance system to maximize opportunities for diversion, placement, prevention, service deliver and rapid re-housing.
- Increase family-centered services in motels, shelters and for families that are doubled up or living in other precarious situations to ensure children’s safety, development and well being.
Support services, access to shelter, children’s issues and motel services were ranked just below voucher distribution as the top priorities in the issue ballot distributed at Visioning Day. Feedback in each of the breakout groups also included themes of assessment, and support for all families- and all family members.
While Massachusetts has a moral and legal obligation to provide shelter to all families that meet the eligibility criteria, only 56% of the 11,595 applicants in fiscal year 2014 were determined to be eligible. The primary function of the “front door” to the shelter system is an eligibility screening, rather than as assessment of the needs or strengths of any particular family. Services for families are contingent on whether or not they enter the system and the particular service delivery model of the motel or shelter that they are placed in.
On Access and Triage:
An assessment based system would approach families in a more trauma informed, strength based and holistic model. Information gleaned from an assessment process could identify opportunities, resources and family assets that may present pathways to stability outside of the shelter system. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a successful diversion program is one where services offered include, at a minimum, flexible cash resources, case management, conflict mediation, connection to mainstream services and housing search. At the same time, families entering the system could be triaged to the most appropriate placements, and/or linked with the resources they need for rapid re-housing and shorter shelter stays. Systems across the country are implementing coordinated assessment systems. If we embrace the diversity of program models, and maximize the services and resources across communities, Massachusetts stands poised to be a leader in this area.
But, most importantly, as assessment based shelter entry would function to ensure children’s safety. According to DHCD’s June 2014 monthly report, 607 families entered the shelter system in FY2014 after staying in places not meant for human habitation. We shouldn’t be, and can’t be, putting our children at such risk. An assessment based system could also prevent situations like this. Massachusetts was recently ranked #3 in the country for the well being of homeless children. The ranking is, in part, due to having a plan that includes children and families. It is time that we move past the planning and build on on the good, all the knowledge and all the strengths of families and our system.
Increasing resources and support for family-centered services for families at all stages of housing instability is crucial. This is extremely critical for families who are housed in motels across the state and for families who are doubled-up or living in other precarious housing situations. We know the impacts of homelessness on children- their health, their education, and emotional well being. Access to services can help mitigate the negative impacts of homelessness- and housing instability- on children. Attendees at Visioning Day also discussed the need for access to child care, transportation, education/job training, and mental and behavioral health services- all complicated systems to navigate without an advocate. Services, supports and opportunities can often be the determining factor as to if a family enters the shelter system, if they can utilize short term housing assistance (i.e. HomeBASE), and/or whether or not they will ever need to seek re-entry into shelter.
How do we push this agenda forward?
This is where you come in! What specific assessment tools, frameworks and diversion tactics do you see that are working? What are the barriers? What data to we have or do we need to track our successes? Who, or what entity, should be assessing families? What are the training needs of staff to successfully implement proper assessment, triage and diversion? How can triaging work in a system that is overcapacity- especially when more families are coming in than exiting? Who is responsible for providing services? How can families outside of the shelter system access the types of supports they need to move towards housing and economic stability?
 Commonwealth of Massachusetts Emergency Assistance Program Fiscal Year 2014 Fourth Quarter Report, Dept of Housing and Community Development, July 31, 2014
 National Alliance to End Family Homelessness, Closing the Front Door: Creating a Successful Diversion Program for Homeless Families, http://b.3cdn.net/naeh/2b98efdfcf27486475_uim6b5a3h.pdf.