The concept of homelessness seems like simple Either you have a place to live or you don’t.
But take it from someone who has spent the last 14 years managing housing for homeless people. Identifying homelessness is not always that easy.
Surprisingly, our clients may not recognize their own homelessness. I learned this from an ICAN program participant, RL. He told me he didn’t think of himself as homeless Most of the time he could find a place to crash for a little while. Maybe a few nights, a few weeks or even a few months. He used a shelter when he had nowhere else to go. But he never felt homeless.
This went on for ten years.
Our Agency’s outreach worker got to know RL while he was still on the streets. As she learned more about his life she encouraged him to make changes. His life could be more stable if he moved into housing and accepted services. He would have a better chance to get sober. He could recover. Over time RL gained insight about his life. Now RL has a home and a part-time job. He’s been sober for seven years. When he visits our office he always has a smile and a hug for me.
HUD has been targeting more money to programs serving people with multiple homeless incidences. These are people like RL, who essentially spent ten years in a homeless cycle. In housing we call this a history of “chronic homelessness.” HUD and housing advocates have focused on reducing this phenomenon of chronic homelessness. It is something of a paradox for housing agencies serving disabled, homeless people. We know there are people like RL, people with gaps in housing over many years. We have money to help them. But if people don’t recognize or remember their homeless episodes they miss affordable housing opportunities.
If you interview your clients specifically about times they did not have a place to live you may discover they meet the definition of chronic homelessness. It is a matter of collecting the facts from the individual or family who needs housing. This makes the difference in qualifying your client for the most housing resources available.
First, what is chronic homelessness? HUD’s definition has two parts. The person must have a disabling condition. This goes to the heart of why anyone would be homeless so many times. It suggests they have a deficit restricting their ability to function well enough to maintain housing. In fact, a licensed social work or medical professional must sign a verification of disability to document its presence. The disability can be a diagnosable substance abuse disorder, serious mental illness, developmental disability or a chronic physical illness. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a recognized disability
The number of homeless episodes the individual or family has experience is the second and more obvious attribute. According to HUD a chronically homeless individual or family has been homeless (at least) four times in the last three years or continually homeless for one year.
If you are working with a client who is disabled and you suspect she (or he) has been homeless on multiple occasions it is incumbent upon you to determine whether she meets the definition of a chronically homeless person. With a little patience and a tested process you can uncover this pattern.
Let’s start with the basics. Are you familiar with your community’s Continuum of Care (CoC)? If not, you can find background information in a previous post, http://bit.ly/THKYgd. The CoC administrative body is charged with monitoring HUD funded programs and it is critical for you to learn about it and how it operates. CoC programs have been around since 1996. Initially the HUD definition of homelessness was broad. Thus, housing agencies could use a broad policy for eligibility.
The homeless policies no longer allow any room for discretion. In 2009 Congress passed the HEARTH Act, and in 2012 HUD issued guidance for how to implement it. HEARTH essentially divides housing programs into categories based on how homeless a person is. Imagine a “Chinese menu” of issues that reflect a client’s mental and physical health, ability to work, income level and family size. The new categories differentiate between people literally on the street and those who are risk of homelessness. Perhaps the landlord is evicting the family or eviction is likely because the tenant has fallen behind on rent. Some may face homelessness due to a sudden economic or health upheaval. They only need emergency shelter and social supports for a limited time and thus HUD has created short term fixes.
At the other end of the range are persons or families who repeatedly struggle to meet basic needs. These individuals have the misfortune to meet the definition of chronically homeless. If your client is one of them, we circle back around to the premise that HUD has invested heavily in serving those who are most in need because they are unable to obtain and maintain housing without a long term investment of housing and services.
As an aside your clients need a Certificate of Homelessness for any housing program exclusive to homeless people, whether your client is homeless once or multiple times. Your community’s standard Certificate of Homelessness form becomes a key part of the application for any homeless program. I have included a PDF file of a HUD template. Not every community’s form will look exactly like this but the elements should be the same.
Get to know this form. You will need a copy for each incidence of homelessness. This becomes part of your client’s homeless record. These certificates help housing providers qualify your clients. Remember, too, that housing providers get audited for whether every client meets the eligibility criteria. If your documents back them up you will get more than access to more housing opportunities. You will build a great working relationship with an important partner.
There is much more to learn about chronic homelessness, and you have homework for part two: identify your CoC lead body and obtain a copy of its approved Certification of Homelessness. Next time we will discuss the common elements it should contain and how to use it for every homeless episode.
You are on your way to building your client’s history.
Until then, Maryellen