Learning from Efforts to Address Youth and Family Homelessness
Marge F. Martin, Director of PD&R’s Policy Development Division.
I had the good fortune to attend the 2018 National Conference on Ending Youth and Family Homelessness in Los Angeles in March, an event hosted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness that focused on families and youth experiencing homelessness.
Before the conference started, I visited Los Angeles Family Housing (LAFH), a housing and services provider helping people transition out of homelessness and poverty. Los Angeles is one of the least affordable housing markets in the country, where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is about $2,170 per month. LAFH serves one of Los Angeles County’s eight service planning areas by providing coordinated entry services and bridge housing as well as permanent housing placements for families experiencing homelessness. LAFH is also a housing developer, owning and operating 24 properties including 3 bridge housing sites and 21 permanently affordable apartment buildings.
The conference had two overarching themes for me: divergence and navigation centers.
With an inadequate supply of affordable housing and clear constraints on available homeless assistance resources, many communities are looking to help families and youth resolve their issues to divert them from the homelessness system. These services include family reunification; counseling; help obtaining birth certificates; or even small amounts of money to cover back rent, utilities, or groceries.
We’ve long known that many mainstream shelters were not designed around the needs of families and youth and that many people avoid shelters if they feel they are unsafe or too restrictive. The navigation centers program model offers an interesting new option. Stemming from the new reality of rising rents and homelessness that so many resource-constrained cities on the west coast face, navigation centers are smaller, lower-barrier shelter facilities designed around shorter stays and greater access to services.
The rise in homelessness over the past year, particularly on the west coast, has led to the emergence of large encampments. I attended a session in which representatives from San Francisco and Clark County, Nevada, shared their practices for dealing with encampments. San Francisco makes use of Encampment Resolution Teams that reach out to encampments that have six or more tenants for at least 1 month. The teams, which include both housing and health practitioners, work with people living in the encampments to bring them inside to shelter before summoning the police. During the past year, San Francisco resolved 23 encampments, bringing into shelter 66 percent of the 1,000 people living there. Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, also uses a team approach to target outreach to encampments in tunnels, storm drains, and other unsheltered locations vulnerable to the elements.
The conference also featured a research session on implementing coordinated entry, effective vulnerability and prioritization tools, and data on youth homelessness. Debra Rog from Westat presented her research on changes to county-level family homelessness systems in the Puget Sound area following the 2005 launch of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Washington Families Fund. Eric Rice from the University of Southern California also presented his work on youth vulnerability assessments and housing stability outcomes, which supports tailored levels of youth programing. Although less vulnerable youth often remained stably housed after self-resolving or reconnecting with family, youth with higher vulnerability scores progressively found success in rapid rehousing or permanent supportive housing programs.
Another way service providers help struggling families navigate housing solutions is through landlord participation in affordable rental programs. At a session on landlord recruitment strategies, Vivian Wan from Abode Services in northern California spoke about the value of offering double security deposits, signing bonuses, and retention incentives as well as establishing a risk mitigation fund for landlords in tight high-cost markets. Jason Mansfield from the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness explained that for landlords in rural areas, messaging focused on relationship building, the links between affordable housing and self-sufficiency, and the benefits of a Housing First approach has been effective. Gabriel Manriquez from Accelerator YMCA in Seattle discussed the importance of tenant education and the advantages of developing roommate housing options for young people.
At the end of the weekend, I headed to San Diego to visit my niece, who recently moved there. Coincidently, her very good friend is the head of Jewish Family Service of San Diego, and he took us out to his facility, where they host a parking lot program in collaboration with another San Diego nonprofit Dreams for Change (DFC). The city of San Diego and the surrounding communities have strict laws regulating overnight parking on city streets, which limit the available options for those who live in their vehicles. The Safe Parking Program operated by DFC provides a dependable and safe parking environment as well as supportive services for transitional homeless people who are living in their vehicles. From 6:00 pm to 7:00 am, people at the center are allowed to sleep in their cars. The center provides a safe refuge with clean portable restrooms and WiFi. In the morning, registered participants can take a shower and receive food from the pantry. One of the women sleeping at the center had a failed relationship and was left with nothing. Another woman was there with her son because she couldn’t afford rent for an apartment. Another gentleman was a veteran struggling to get his benefits. My impression from talking to people at the center is that they are much like the rest of us, but had just one incident that caused them to become homeless.