Last month I had the opportunity to attend a training workshop on rapidly re-housing survivors of domestic violence. The workshop was conducted by Kris Billhardt, Director of Volunteers of America, Oregon’s Home Free program, who is a longtime advocate and has worked in the movement against domestic violence for nearly three decades. Her program has achieved some impressive results. From 2010 to 2011, 90 percent of the survivors who received Housing First services from Home Free attained safe, permanent housing, and 80 percent remain safely housed 12 months after exiting the program.
If you want to learn more about Home Free, you can read this best practice paper on Home Free, check out our domestic violence toolkit, or contact Kris about conducting a training workshop in your community.
Home Free’s philosophy is to give every domestic violence survivor a chance. The initial assessment they conduct is not about screening people out of the program; instead it’s about discovering any barriers that may keep the survivor from housing. Kris noted that it is impossible to know immediately who will be successful and who will not. People are resourceful, and can often surprise us. For this reason, the intake process at Home Free is minimally-intrusive and conversational. The advocate serves as a partner, and lets the survivor lead the way in determining how much help she needs to end her homelessness.
Home Free also uses a voluntary service model. This allows their advocates to individualize the way services are delivered and treats survivors as experts in their own lives. Kris noted that mandatory services may have unintended consequences for survivors, like reminding them of a controlling abuser. Additionally, the program’s staff appreciate the way survivors respond to voluntary services. “People are really forthright,” Kris quoted one of Home Free’s advocates as saying, “because we don’t set up situations where they have to lie to us or lose access to services by asking for help around stigmatized issues.”
We at the Alliance are grateful to be safe and dry once again. Like the federal government, we too closed for two days because of the storm. Alliance staff have now returned to our DC office, where we are busily working to catch up on unanswered emails, unreturned phone calls, unfinished reports and all the other unfinished business that we had to set aside when Sandy shut down DC. On behalf of the Alliance, I’d like to extend our deepest thanks to the emergency personnel who have responded to this crisis, and say that our thoughts and hearts go out to all those who are still feeling its effects.
In mid-2011, when I was still relatively new to the Alliance and DC, I started reaching out to partner agencies in an effort to form a group that would work behind the scenes, advocating policies to end veteran homelessness. It took a bit of cajoling to get people to join, as there is a perception out there that groups like these can be ineffective or too political for their own good.
Being a wide-eyed newbie to the national advocacy scene, I was, of course, undeterred.
This week marks the one year anniversary of that group, the Homeless Veterans National Advocacy Working Group* (HVNAWG). Happy one year anniversary HVNAWG! It is a long name for a really cool group. (A little disclaimer here – for a variety of political and bureaucratic reason, we remain an “unofficial” group.)
We began relatively small, just seven core representatives from veteran service organizations, national advocacy groups, and a local organization active in national advocacy, but over the last 12 months we have expanded the reach and membership and accomplished a lot. One of our proudest achievements was a well-attended and highly informative congressional briefing we put together several months back.
The value of this working group cannot be overstated. It allows national leaders on ending veteran homelessness to work together and share the expertise of their respective organizations. The diversity of the members’ perspectives, which overlap and complement each other, allow us to tackle policy issues from a variety of angles.
It can be challenging to sit down at the table with members of organizations who may not see eye-to-eye on all issues because of conflicting focus areas or priorities. Organizations may also be rivals or competitors for the same audience or funding streams. This tension can lend itself to a little conflict at times.
But these different philosophical and political viewpoints make for lively discussions and a hearty exchange of knowledge. And we are bound together by our common goal: ending veteran homelessness.
Since its humble beginnings, our group has fielded numerous requests to endorse legislation, weighed in on policy questions, and made congressional allies. While the informal nature of our group keeps us from “officially” backing policy, regulations, or other legislation, we are able to refer to our parent organizations for endorsement of legislation or other official correspondence.
Although we are unofficial, the amount of influence we leverage is impressive. When we agree as a group on policy priorities, we can then align our organizations behind similar messaging. This strategy has had a direct effect on policymakers.
Moving forward, the group will continue to share knowledge and resources, inform policymakers through briefings and educational meetings, and collectively move the ball closer to the goal of ending veteran homelessness once and for all.
We work with far too many individuals and organizations to thank personally in this blog post, but you know who you are. Thank you for your willingness to set aside differences and work together for a common goal. Your hard work and sacrifice have made a difference. Thank you for all you have done, and continue to do in moving forward.
* Current members of the homeless veterans working group are:
American Bar Association
Community Council for the Homeless of Friendship Place
Corporation for Supportive Housing
National Alliance to End Homelessness
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
National League of Cities
National Low Income Housing Coalition
Veterans for Common Sense
Veterans of Foreign Wars
Vietnam Veterans of America
Today’s guest blog post was contributed by the Ankita Patel of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
I’ve been working on Domestic Violence Housing First for a couple of years now. But I also have a lot of experience working with immigrants. In general, I’ve found that trying to address the needs of immigrant survivors by just tweaking a mainstream system isn’t enough. One of my favorite things about Domestic Violence Housing First is that the flexibility of the housing first model allows individually tailored services that encompass a person’s culture as well as their unique needs and situation.
For example, one of the pillars of our work in Domestic Violence Housing First has been tailored, mobile advocacy. This approach involves an advocate visiting a survivor’s home rather than requiring the survivor to visit an advocate’s office. So we were caught off-guard when an advocate from another provider serving immigrants told us that her version of tailored, mobile advocacy sometimes meant inviting survivors to her office. Initially, that didn’t make sense to me.
Turns out, one immigrant she works with prefers to meet at her office, and with Domestic Violence Housing First money, the advocate can cover her transportation costs to get there.
This advocate shared that in the immigrant survivor’s culture, it would be considered rude for the survivor not to provide food or drinks for a meeting at home. When survivors are focused on retaining their housing, the cost of being hospitable causes pressure and stress. So the advocate focused on making her office hospitable and their meetings comfortable. This was a great reminder to me of how important it is not to get locked into any one way of doing things. We are practicing a philosophy in which we learn to cater to the individual needs of survivors.
Survivors tell me that the tailored services that advocates provide has allowed them to regain a sense of dignity, while advocates report that the flexibility of this model has empowered them to listen to survivors and offer support that meets the needs of the person in front of them.
Community planners now have a great new tool to evaluate changes to their communities’ homelessness assistance system. With the newly released Performance Improvement Calculator, developed by Focus Strategies, you can use your community’s HMIS and budget data to see the impact a proposed change has on the rate of permanent housing exits and average costs.
It is easy to experiment with the Calculator because it comes preloaded with sample data, although you’ll get the best results if you complete the Calculator with your own communities’ data. I wanted to see, for example, what the impact would be if I reduced the average length of time adults and families stay in transitional housing programs by 30 days. I reduced the length of stay, and then checked the summary tab to see what the effect would be. The charts on the left of this post show my result – I’ve increased my permanent housing exits by three percent and cut the average cost per permanent housing exit by six percent.
Other things you can experiment with, either independently or all together, include:
- Changing the average permanent housing placement rates for different kinds of programs (typically shelter, transitional housing, rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing),
- Changing the rate at which people return to the homeless system after being housed,
- Moving funding from one type of intervention to another, and
- As I did above, changing the average length of program stays.
When it comes to housing stability, stable employment is often a crucial component. While many people experiencing homelessness are employed in some capacity, many individuals within the homeless population face significant barriers to employment. These include lack of experience, physical or mental health issues, challenges related to re-entry from incarceration or hospitalization, and homelessness itself. Fortunately, practical tools are available to help individuals overcome these barriers.
For example, the National Transitional Jobs Network launched its Working to End Homelessness Initiative in 2011 “to shine a spotlight on the important role of employment solutions in addressing homelessness and to identify and disseminate promising employment practices.” The organization uses transitional jobs strategies to help employ people who face the greatest barriers to employment. The National Transitional Jobs Network has identified four reasons why transitional jobs are good for homeless assistance providers and communities:
- Transitional jobs help low-income people with barriers to employment enter the workforce, avoid re-incarceration, and reduce their reliance on public benefits;
- Transitional jobs programs strengthen communities through investments in workers;
- Transitional jobs programs help employers meet their goals; and
- Transitional jobs programs can yield significant cost savings for states.
While transitional jobs can reintegrate people experiencing homelessness back into the workforce, they are just one component of a larger strategy. Transitional jobs are short-term in nature, so the relationship between a homeless assistance provider and their clients should be long-term. In fact, for most clients, the relationship with provider staff, and the encouragement and support they receive are crucial to the client’s success in transitioning from short-term employment to permanent employment. Other supportive services are also critical to a client’s success, from transportation assistance, to mental health treatment, to social supports such as mentors and support groups.
For homeless assistance providers in communities that lack employment agencies or programs, the National Transitional Jobs Network website provides a wealth of resources for building a transitional jobs program. It also outlines strategies for working with different subpopulations experiencing homelessness. For homeless assistance providers in communities that do have employment agencies and other employment resources, collaborating with them not only makes financial sense, it frees up organizations so they can focus on their own areas of expertise.
Homeless assistance providers can also connect employment specialists with the resources offered by National Transitional Jobs Network, which can help specialists develop employment opportunities for different subpopulations experiencing homelessness. By working together, organizations can focus on their individual roles in helping to end homelessness.
Image “Now Hiring” by AKZOphotos.
Today’s guest blog post was contributed by Hannah Gisness, a student at George Washington University, and Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.
October is here with elections just around the corner! Last week I had the opportunity to participate in National Homeless and Low-Income Voter Registration Week. I worked alongside students from The George Washington University and advocates for The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). We successfully registered 137 individuals to vote.
For three days, we manned a table at the Martin Luther King Library in D.C and visited local parks to encourage and assist people in the voting and registration process. We were equipped with NCH’s 2012 Voting Manual, paper applications, pens, stickers, pamphlets from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, and registration and voting materials.
Each year in the United States, millions of people experience or are at risk of experiencing homelessness. According to the Census Bureau, of the 15,784,000 individuals from families making less than $20,000 per year, 63.7 percent were registered to vote and 51.9 percent voted in the 2008 presidential election. This year’s election will help determine many health care and housing rights important for low-income individuals and individuals experiencing homelessness. So it is imperative that this population be aware of their voting rights.
One of the biggest misconceptions about voting is that you need a home in order to vote. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics’ voter registration application does require two addresses – a residential address, and a mailing address to which the confirmation will be sent. But an individual who is experiencing homelessness can use the address of a shelter, a friend’s house, or the street address where they sleep for the residential address, and many shelters in D.C. allow their guests to use their addresses for the mailing address. St. Steven’s Church in Colombia Heights has also volunteered the use of their address.
At the library, we asked each person walking by if they would like to register to vote. We were pleasantly surprised when we found that many of the people who approached our table were already registered. For those people, we made sure they were aware of D.C.’s early voting dates. The 2012 election will be held on Tuesday, November 6. The ballot times are not always convenient for many people, but D.C. offers two weeks of early voting leading up to the election. Many people we talked to were unaware of this option, and we were able to provide dates and polling locations to about 150 additional people.
As we asked library guests and park inhabitants if they would like to register to vote, some passed us by, saying that they were ineligible, but a few of these individuals who thought they were ineligible did stop and talk with us. One woman whispered to me she had committed a felony. Fortunately, D.C.’s disenfranchisement restrictions are limited to those in prisons. The woman was so excited she could register to vote, she later returned with a friend who faced a similar situation. Another man we registered remarked that this would be the first election he would vote in since President Clinton was elected in 1992.
Many people were unsure if they were registered or if their registration was up to date. Conveniently, at the library we had access to computers, so people could electronically access their application in the Board of Elections and Ethics database and check their status and change information if they needed to.
The D.C. Board of Elections also provided us with hundreds of paper applications and information packets people could take home. Since we were using the D.C. Board of Elections application, we could not register residents of Maryland or Virginia. We were, however, able talk to them about their voting eligibility and explain where they could check out their states’ requirements.
Local shelters and advocacy groups in Atlanta, Denver, Cleveland, New York City and many other cities across the country also mounted voter registration efforts for National Homeless & Low-Income Voter Registration Week. In D.C. So Others Might Eat (SOME), which already registered 165 people earlier this year, registered another 105 voters.
In order for the registration efforts to be effective, we must continue encouraging individuals to vote and register at their polling places if they have not done so already. Volunteers and organizations can provide transportation – school buses, church shuttles, and taxis – to polling locations or plan walks to the polls. Shelter staff can set up mock voting booths for individuals to practice voting, and encourage well known community members to assist at the polls.
For individuals without a supportive network encouraging them to get involved in the voting process, or individuals who are unaware of their voting rights, the process could be much more difficult. This upcoming election is a crucial one for low-income individuals and individuals experiencing homelessness.
I am proud that our efforts have made it possible for 137 to participate in the electoral process this November.
Today’s guest blog post was contributed by Caroline Jones, Executive Director for Doorways for Women and Families.
Many of us know of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We have become accustomed to seeing pink everywhere and hearing the public services announcements in the Fall. Fewer people are aware that October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I often lament the fact that these two critical women’s issues have to share just one month of the year, as both deserve our full attention 365 days a year.
The extensive reach of domestic violence is shocking. Today, one in four women and girls will experience domestic violence at some point in their life. Yet this epidemic rarely makes the local or national news unless it affects a celebrity or public figure. We hear their voices, but we don’t hear the voices of the millions of women – and men – who suffer daily with sexual, emotional, psychological, financial and physical abuse. What if the only place you had to call home was where someone was causing you and your children harm? Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness among women because victims are often left with a difficult choice: either stay with the abuser or become homeless.
In a perfect world, a survivor of domestic violence would be able to continue living safely in her home and her abuser would be made to leave. Indeed, survivors who file for protective orders can add clauses that allow them to stay at home. Unfortunately, that’s not always a viable option. To remain in their homes, single women and mothers must shoulder the sudden burden of paying the mortgage and household bills on their own, and they sometimes have little work experience or money. Survivors also often need to leave their homes for safety. If an abuser knows where their ex-partner is living, he may re-victimize her with physical abuse, psychological abuse, or stalking.
At Doorways for Women and Families we are keenly aware of this link between domestic violence and homelessness. We see it daily among the women and families we serve. Through our 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline and 11-bed Domestic Violence Safehouse, we address both domestic violence and homelessness because neither issue can be solved without dealing with the other. Beyond immediate shelter, we offer a comprehensive approach that provides supportive housing and life-changing support services, including financial education and empowerment, counseling, and one-on-one children’s mental health services.
For decades, the top priority in national policies and systems that respond to homeless survivors of domestic violence has been the provision of confidential emergency shelter. It has not been until recently that longer-term, safe and independent housing resources have been recognized as best practices.
Now national policies and systems are responding in ways that reach survivors who need targeted housing assistance to prevent the recurrence of violence and end their homelessness. Today we recognize homeless survivors of domestic violence as a priority sub-population of the overall population of people experiencing homelessness, one that is best served with housing assistance and support services. Now, in many communities, such as the one we serve here in Arlington, these policies are shining a light on a link that is so clear in the eyes of the families and survivors we see every day.
Homelessness and domestic violence have been part of our society for centuries. These problems are rooted in complex social issues, with no singular cause. They are driven in part by unfair wages, child abuse, gender inequality, educational gaps, and many other factors. One might look at this list and feel hopeless. But at Doorways, we know what is possible.
Our clients have taught us many times over. Beginning with a safe place to stay and continuing with targeted services to address families’ needs, we can create pathways out of domestic violence and homelessness toward safe and stable lives.
Mention post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as it relates to homelessness, and most people will probably think of military veterans, but other homeless populations struggle with PTSD. Indeed, the experience of homelessness itself is a trauma that can lead to PTSD.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur after an individual has experienced a traumatic event, particularly one that involves the threat of injury or death. It is still unclear why a particular trauma may lead to PTSD for some individuals but not for others, or why some individuals are traumatized by a particular event when others are not.
We do know that:
- PTSD changes the body’s response to stress;
- An individual with a history of trauma may be more susceptible to experiencing PTSD from a future traumatic event; and
- Symptoms of PTSD may not appear for weeks or even months after the triggering traumatic event.
There are a number of ways in which the traumatic experience of homelessness can lead to PTSD:
- The actual event of becoming homeless can lead to trauma through the loss of stable shelter, family connections, and accustomed social roles and routines;
- The ongoing condition of homelessness creates stressors that include the uncertainty of where to find food and safe shelter and the potential for experiencing violence and victimization, which can erode a person’s coping mechanisms; and
- Homelessness might serve as a breaking point for those who have preexisting behavioral health conditions or a history of traumatization.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, symptoms of PTSD fall into three main categories:
- “Reliving” the event, which disturbs day-to-day activity, including, for example, flashbacks and nightmares;
- Avoidance, which includes emotional numbing and feeling detached; and
- Arousal, which might include difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and outbursts of anger, amongst other symptoms.
One of the greatest challenges for homeless service providers is that the PTSD is post-traumatic, not co-occurring-traumatic. Its symptoms may not manifest until after a person is stably housed. Another challenge for providers comes from the fact that delaying the housing component can create more psychological barriers to housing stability.
Fortunately, research shows that post-trauma resiliency can be learned through effective training programs for both consumers and providers.
At a minimum, homeless assistance providers should ensure that programs and policies reflect the needs of people suffering from PTSD:
- Housing should be provided as quickly as possible to provide safety and stability while minimizing the potential for associated traumatic experiences;
- Since symptoms may be delayed, people receiving homeless assistance should be counseled about psychological changes they may experience in the future, and offered referrals for psychiatric help; and
People suffering from PTSD need ongoing support to reach a successful recovery and reintegration into social routines.
Image “Homeless and Cold” courtesy of Ed Yourdon’s photostream.
As we reach the halfway point in the Department of Veterans Affairs five-year plan to end homelessness among veterans, there is a great excitement in communities across the nation. This is a historic process. Never before have we seen so many people working together to end veteran homelessness. Never before have there been so many resources available to communities wishing to solve this problem.
But what can you as an individual do to contribute to the vital mission of ending veteran homelessness? Besides making a donation to organizations like the Alliance that are working hard on the problem, you can contribute to the effort in a variety of ways. Last week, I discussed the ways individuals can contribute in a webinar hosted by the Points of Light foundation.
The webinar, titled “Finding Community Solutions to Serving the Military Community Part 1: Housing,” was aimed at people who were participating the Martin Luther King Day of Service initiative, as well as other members of communities who were looking to broaden their understanding of the issue and looking for ways to donate their time to serve this cause. A recording of the webinar is available online.
Participating with the local Point in Time (PIT) Count is one way almost anyone can make a huge difference. This annual event is coming up in mid- January, right around the time of the MLK day of service, so it is a natural fit. The best way to participate is to contact your local Continuum of Care and ask to volunteer. You can find the contact information of your local Continuum of Care at this website.
Depending where you are, you may be matched up with another organization, or assigned to a team. You will be going out into your community and physically interacting with and counting the unsheltered people experiencing homelessness, helping to identify which of these individuals are veterans. This is challenging work to be sure, but the data retrieved during this event is the cornerstone of addressing the issue. With accurate counts we can target the resources we have and justify future spending.
Volunteering at your local Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA Hospital) is another way you can help veterans (although not necessarily homeless veterans). You can also donate goods and services to local charities that assist veterans and local Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) in your community.
Whatever option you choose, often the best way to get started is by doing a little research on organizations that help veterans in your area, and the contacting them to ask what they would like you to do to contribute is as an individual. Organizations like these have been around a long time and their staff members know how to best direct resources.
The bottom line is: these are exciting times. Within a few years veteran homelessness will be almost nonexistent, so now is the time to be part of this historic effort to do right by our nations heroes.
Photo “Colorado TAG speaks with homeless vets” courtesy of The National Guard: Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards, the Adjutant General of Colorado and commander of the Colorado National Guard, speaks with a veteran during the 19th Annual Homeless Veterans Stand Down held at the Colorado National Guard armory in Denver Nov. 5, 2009.