Grants to build and operate affordable housing come in many shapes and sizes. Accordingly, the programs they fund vary in who, what, when and how housing providers can use them. The trick is to understand your client’s homeless history and help her convey it to the affordable housing community.
In recent years the largest funding sources for affordable housing have shifted their investments to permanent supportive housing (PSH). PSH is the best practice for serving people with significant barriers to self-sufficiency. Moreover, HUD has developed housing voucher programs beyond Housing Choice (formerly Section 8). Shelter Plus Care (SPC) vouchers and Supportive Housing Program (SHP) rental assistance.
HUD limits eligibility for SPC and SHP programs to people who meet the definition of Category One homelessness. Briefly, that means they are in an emergency shelter, on the street or entered an institution or transitional housing from the shelter or street.
You will hear about the definition of Category One homelessness from just about anybody you talk to who is part of the affordable housing system. They may not talk about Category Four: People who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence. When your client needs to leave an abusive home you can count it as though she was homeless the night before. You can advocate that your client’s need to leave means they fit Category One. Every time you help your client apply for housing make sure to identify if she is trying to leave an abusive home.
Why is this important? Let’s say your client has been on a waiting list for a rent subsidy that can only help homeless people. The housing provider calls and says that your client has reached the top of the list. A voucher is available. You make an appointment to complete the final paperwork. This paperwork includes a Certification of Homelessness. If you know that your client, as of the night before the appointment, is attempting to leave her abuser you can certify that she is homeless and eligible as a Category One homeless person.
(All this talk about category number one or four is part of your education about HUD rules.)
As you probably know, grants include promises of what agencies will do. Once those promises are made the housing providers must keep them. Thus, if an agency promised the client will be Category One homeless AND chronically homeless the eligibility bar is much higher. Chronically homeless depends on the number of homeless episodes the individual or family has had. For HUD the standard is the individual or family has been homeless (at least) four times in the last three years or continually homeless for one year.
The number of people who meet the chronic definition is a much smaller percentage of homeless people in general. If a program is limited to serving the chronically homeless their waiting lists will be much shorter.
We hope most people are not literally homeless that often. However, we have seen clients who do not even realize it. Maybe they don’t want to acknowledge it. Maybe there has been so much chaos in their lives they can’t remember each incident.
You can interview your clients to develop a record of multiple homeless episodes. You may even be able to draw out this information as you create a picture of her past. Incidences of trauma or violence may have led to homeless episodes.
We know victims often return to their abuser, often because they are homeless. Each time she left, where did she go? You will work backwards through all of her efforts to leave prodding her to remember not just what was happening in her relationship but when she left and where she stayed.
Before you start this interview have a copy of your community’s official Certificate of Homelessness. You will need to record your discoveries on this form.
Allison came to you in the middle of the night in February, 2011. You immediately found a place for her in your shelter. She stayed until the 89th day and your Agency does not allow people to stay longer. The next day she returns home because she has nowhere else to go. In the meantime you helped her apply for different housing programs.
You don’t see Allison again until mid-summer 2012. Maybe she enters your shelter again. After a few days Allison disappears.
In March 2013 a housing provider calls and says they have a voucher available for a person who has been chronically homeless. If Allison meets that definition she can have that voucher. But as far as you know Allison only has two episodes that qualify – her shelter stays in early 2011 and mid-summer 2012.
You contact Allison and find out where she is living. You learn she is at home again with her abuser. She tells you she wants to leave but she’s afraid. She agrees to come in to talk to you.
During your interview you discover that Allison tried to leave her home on another occasion when her abuser injured her and she spent several nights in the hospital. Normally hospital stays don’t count as homeless episodes. Because she got hurt trying to flee this creates an episode of homelessness. Now you have another incident you can put on your homeless certification.
You are up to three incidents within the last three years. You have almost qualified Allison for that voucher. When you take Allison to the housing appointment you are willing to certify you believe she is attempting to flee abuse. This creates her fourth episode. It also qualifies her as currently homeless so she is eligible for the voucher.
If you are not comfortable signing the verification Allison can also self-certify. Having said that, any additional back-up you can provide to the housing agency helps them build Allison’s file so it will pass a HUD review.
Some documents are relatively easy to obtain. Shelters can provide a certification on their letterhead for when Allison was there. If she got a hotel voucher from the Salvation Army they will have a record. You can contact the police. Their records for calls to her home add credibility to her statement she lives in a violent home.
Be sure to record each incident on the homeless certification form with as much detail as possible. Maybe Allison tells you she slept in her car for a few nights but she doesn’t remember when. Prod her memory. Was it cold and snowy? Was it really hot? If so, you can check weather records for noticeable stretches of this weather.
Maybe she recalls there was a holiday of some sort close to the time. She wanted to go to church for Easter but she couldn’t because of her situation. Another approach is asking what was going on in your town, or state, or the country. Some news events are so big people remember them despite a memory frazzled by fear and trauma.
These are just examples of how Allison may have been homeless, but her episodes were “under the radar.” You have just successfully developed the history showing these incidents.
It’s only fair to tell you that you may have to be a strong advocate for your client’s homeless history. HUD is still tweaking its homeless definition. As a housing provider I can attest to our skittishness about understanding and following the new rules. HUD has not issued any specific guidance about using Category Four. You may need to request that the housing provider seeks technical assistance from HUD or the local Continuum of Care agency for Category Four.
Category Four was written to accommodate the reality that victims may technically have a home but it is not safe. Not for them, not for their children. Maybe we have found a part of the social service system that actually makes sense. Too bad we can’t get used to it.