REPORTS RELEASED! Family Experiences of Homelessness in Massachusetts & Evidence Based Stabilization

Massachusetts is home to the country’s only statewide shelter system with a legal mandate to provide immediate shelter to all families who meet the strict eligibility criteria. The Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program is administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development funded by state dollars and includes 52 distinct non-profit shelter providers. Homes for Families is dedicated to learning from the experiences and perspectives of families overcoming homelessness and family shelter community.  As a part of that work, we embarked on a three year research project funded by the Oak Foundation. The research intended to look at the role and components of assessment, the range of shelter programs in Massachusetts, the experiences of families in EA shelters, and national trends and research to inform the next steps address homelessness in the Commonwealth.

Our research took place from 2014 to 2017. During this period, there were increases to the level of services in motels; an expansion of contracted shelter beds, the development of the co-shelter model; the restructuring and expansion of diversion practices; and increases to the benefit level of the HomeBASE program, and an increase in prevention funding and investments in the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program. According to statistics from the Department of Housing and Community Development from January 2014 through June 2017:

  • the average daily caseload during this time period was reduced from 4,458 to 3,545, a decline of 20%
  • the motel caseload declined by 98% from 2,098 families to 46
  • the number of contracted shelter beds increased from 2,018 units in September 2013 to 3,682 in June of 2017, a total of 1,644 units were added, an increase of 82%
  • the diversion rate increased from 5% to 21%
  • 9,140 families in shelters and motels were re-housed with the HomeBASE resource
  • 15,484 families received prevention assistance through the RAFT program
  • Over 1,700 families in shelters and motels were re-housed with vouchers through the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program

 

http://www.mass.gov/hed/docs/dhcd/hs/ea/eamonthlyreport.pdf

As the numbers and graph clearly indicate this was a period of tremendous progress in addressing family homelessness, especially when family homelessness in other high cost cities continues to rise (e.g. New York City, Washington, DC). At the same time the system is still serving more than double the number of families since before the Great Recession, about half of the families that apply for shelter do not meet the eligibility criteria, and thousands more families are facing housing instability. It is imperative that the system continues to evolve to address the structural causes and individual instances of homelessness.

Our research provides a pathway forward through a series of 4 reports. Each paper examines the ongoing crisis of family homelessness through a distinct lens; however, there are clear themes shared across the series. Common themes across the four papers include:

  1. Structural Gaps: We must address the structural issues that have created this crisis, namely the shortage of housing and the widening gap between wages and rent. We know that housing is the foundation to stability and services and opportunities can create a pathway to success.
  2. Children: There must be a greater focus on children. The safety and developmental needs of children must be an integral and core component of all policies, programs, and systems addressing the needs of families without homes. 
  3. Assessment: There must be an improved focus on conducting comprehensive, family-centered, and trauma-informed assessments.  The pathway to stability and improved well-being for parents and their children begins with a solid assessment. Strengths must be identified and risks assessed, and reliable and valid measures used to effectively target service resources.
  4. Data: Evidence based solutions are driven by data; data is key to driving policy decisions. To craft and implement policies that will make a real difference in the lives of families experiencing homelessness, it must be accurate, reflect their voices, and capture the full range of their experiences- from shelter through stabilization.  In research, practice, or policy, family input and data are required for effective outcomes.

The first paper in the series was released in March of 2015. Assessment of Families Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide for Practitioners and Policymakers takes a step back to look at what is meant by the term “assessment” and walks through tips and strategies for a meaningful assessment process. The paper highlights the critical need to include children in the assessment process and the imperative to use the data to steer policy decisions.

The second paper was released in June 2015, The Family Shelter System in Massachusetts: A snapshot of program models, service needs, promising practices, and challenges  gives a general overview of the shelter programs across Massachusetts, with sections on system and family demographics, needs identified by providers and promising practices. This paper makes both programmatic and systemic recommendations, including issues around safety and program flexibility, a stronger focus on data and assessment, addressing generational poverty, cliff effects, and increasing coordination with community resources.


We are pleased to release the final two papers:

The third in the series, Family Experiences of Homelessness in Massachusetts: The Case for Family Centered Care highlights key data from a survey we administered with families in the Emergency Assistance (EA) program.  The survey was developed with the guidance of the Consumer Advocacy Team (CAT), a group of parents who have experienced homelessness and severe housing instability and that are full partners in our work.  Using a Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) approach, a total of 117 parents were surveyed in the Springfield and Boston areas in motels, congregate scattered sites, and co-shelters. This paper provides a glimpse into families’ experiences within the shelter system and other systems of care and makes the case for family centered care as a model to best align family needs with service delivery. Click here the summary of the data.

The final and fourth paper in the series, Evidence Based Stabilization: A Solution to Reduce Family Homelessness in Massachusetts reviews national research about families experiencing homelessness and evidence based practices across the country.  The paper concludes by recommending an assessment and evidence based stabilization model be implemented across the Commonwealth. 


 

We would like to that the authors and researchers, Dr. Carmela J. DeCandia of Artemis Associates LLC and Marvin So, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; the Department of Housing and Community Development and shelter providers for their assistance in this project; and the staff, interns, and consultants who provided great support and leadership. We give special thanks to the Consumer Advocacy Team, and to all the families that participated in the survey and ongoing work of Homes for Families.

We look forward to our continued work to ensure the voices and viewpoints of families and shelter providers are heard and understood. We must couple those efforts with data to drive positive systems change and solutions. We welcome your reactions, ideas and feedback.

LH

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Report Release: Assessment of Families Experiencing Homelessness

Through support of the OAK Foundation, Homes for Families is taking on an initiative that aims to improve the application and placement process for families who need to utilize the Emergency Assistance program.  As part of this project, we will be releasing a series of reports and documents regarding family homelessness, the Emergency Assistance system and the families it serves.  We are pleased to present the first report, Assessment of Families Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide for Practitioners and Policy Makers

A bit of background: Continuums of Care funded by HUD are required to institute a coordinated assessment, but currently there is much variability in the process. The term itself is often applied to tools that function to collect data, to screen for eligibility, to determine a housing intervention, to guide a differential response for service delivery or for clinical interventions.  The topic is gaining momentum as a key component in addressing homelessness here in Massachusetts as well; Governor Baker mentions the term “assessment” as part of his plan and vision for addressing the homelessness crisis in the Commonwealth. 

As a beginning step in our project we pause to ask- what does assessment really mean and how can it be applied to the Massachusetts family shelter system? We turned to Dr. Carmela DeCandia to get some answers, and as a result, this report came to life. We encourage you to read and share it in its entirety, and to encourage this, we highlighted some of the main components below:

The report begins with a thorough introduction on family homelessness in Massachusetts, and why it should be a priority:

In Massachusetts, the rise in homelessness among families and children has been dramatic. According to America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness, in 2010 an estimated 28,683 children were homeless in the Commonwealth; by 2013 that number had grown to 31,516 (Bassuk et al., 2014a).

And continues to get to the crux of the issue at hand:

To achieve its goals and ensure that families’ needs are met, careful consideration must be given to the assessment process. Traditionally, assessment of homeless families has taken a resource driven approach; providers ask only about issues for which services or referrals are available (NAEH, 2015). However, by not screening for known risk factors in homeless families they remain inadequately served and are less likely to attain residential stability. Considering the growing numbers of homeless children across the country, and knowing the impact adverse experiences has on child development, comprehensive assessments are needed to effectively link families with both housing and services.

The report covers the importance of comprehensive assessment,

Assessment lies at the core of the work with homeless families. To provide the best service possible, providers must determine what families need. When done too narrowly, assessments only capture a small piece of a larger puzzle; done too broadly, assessments may not accurately and reliably capture the information needed to guide effective practice.

and it addresses the challenges that come with it:

Assessment can be a challenging process; providing services to a high-risk group with an array of stresses is demanding work for anyone no matter how well trained.

The report reinforces a comprehensive approach,

An effective response to family homelessness requires a shift away from an adult focused, single generation model, to a two generational, family-centered approach that supports resiliency. Reliable screening tools can help providers better identify and target services for all family members. With training, homeless providers can successfully identify and refer families for needed services.

recommends a two-generational approach,

Two generational approaches offer services to help children while simultaneously working with parents to enhance and strengthen parenting skills, build economic self-sufficiency, and address health or mental health needs

And shares how the family-centered approach is unique:

Adults are viewed as parents first; child development is assessed in relation to the parent’s functioning. In families with young children, a mother’s desires and wishes for her family are central and should guide the process. In addition, the developmental status and needs of each child is assessed.

Dr. DeCandia ends with a call for policy change

At this time, political will is needed to move beyond the status quo. Massachusetts is well on its way to taking these bold next steps, and may lead the nation in developing a holistic, family/person centered approach to the assessment of homeless families.

And the reason why we all do what we do:

Doing so holds the promise of helping families achieve housing stability and improved well-being, and preventing adverse outcomes for another generation of homeless children.

About the Author:

Dr. Carmela DeCandia is a licensed clinical psychologist with specialties in trauma, child and adolescent development, program development, and assessment. She worked for more than 10 years at St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children as the Vice President of Programs and was most recently the Director of the National Center on Family Homelessness.  She has partnered with Homes for Families in the past as a participant on committees, partner in pilot projects and training programs, in the facilitation of family focus groups, and as an advocate.

For the full report, please click here. Feel free to email jminton@homesforfamilies.org for a PDF version or any questions.

Please join us in this important conversation by leaving your feedback below and sharing this information with you network.

Visioning Day Report 2014: Every Child Needs a Safe Place To Live; It’s Just The Right Thing

Child FB pic

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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[1]. 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.[2]  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.

On Services:

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?

 

[1] Commonwealth of Massachusetts Emergency Assistance Program Fiscal Year 2014 Fourth Quarter Report, Dept of Housing and Community Development, July 31, 2014
[2] 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.