Adopting a Rapid Re-Housing Approach to Address Family Homelessness

Frank Cirillo is being honored as a Champion of Change for his work to combat homelessness among children and youth.

I have been fortunate to have had nearly a 40-year career in public service at the Mercer County Board of Social Services. For 33 of those years, I have administered a variety of social service programs including Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, NJ SNAP, General Assistance, Adult Protective Services, Work First New Jersey (WFNJ), and Child Support. I have served as the agency Director for the past eight years. During that time the Mercer County Board of Social Services (MCBOSS) has been in the forefront of transforming our community’s response to family homelessness. With the strong support of government and community based partners, we have begun to significantly and innovatively change our approach to combatting family homelessness by instituting a systematic approach that establishes a single point of entry, comprehensive evaluation, integrated case management services, front-end emergency assistance strategies and a rapid rehousing model.

In 2008, MCBOSS joined the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness (Mercer Alliance), the County of Mercer, the City of Trenton, and homeless service providers in a year-long study of the family homeless system. We discovered the high cost of “services as usual” and the less than compelling outcomes. Nearly $6 million in public expenditures were incurred annually for homelessness prevention, emergency shelter and transitional housing. We also were concerned that the homeless service system was not functioning to prevent and end homelessness, but only served to manage it. There seemed to be little correlation between the complexity of families’ needs and the duration of families’ homeless episodes, or the intensity of services delivered. In addition, there was a lack of system level planning about what was needed to serve homeless families in the community. Shelter and transitional housing providers were charged with providing case management services to the families, and making program level decisions about what services would be offered. This resulted in duplication of some services and large gaps in others.

This inspired MCBOSS and the other funding partners to help re-shape services to homeless families in the community. The county was selected as one of 23 communities by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement the federal Rapid Re-housing Demonstration for Families.  MCBOSS received permission from the State to allow Mercer County to use the 18-month rental assistance vouchers normally reserved to families transitioning off of TANF cash assistance to help homeless families reconnect to housing as part of a pilot initiative.

A new approach was developed called Housing Now. In 2009, two Housing Now programs using different funding streams and eligibility requirements were implemented. State funding augmented federal resources to allow the program to serve families at risk of becoming homeless. Within the first two years, 57 families completed the program. On average, families exited the program in 12 months after securing income, and have remained independent of TANF and housing assistance.  None of the families served in the program had a subsequent homeless episode.

The success the Housing Now sparked us to assess how MCBOSS could make better use of agency resources to end family homelessness. This gave rise to the Family Housing Initiative in November 2010. The program provides integrated housing and employment services and direct case management by MCBOSS social service staff. The staff serves as housing advocates. They visit prospective apartments with the client, negotiate with landlords on their clients’ behalf, review leases and educate clients about tenants’ rights and responsibilities. Additionally, the service staff provides financial counseling, parenting education and other appropriate interventions. A primary focus is connecting parents with employment. Employment services are carefully coordinated with the client and the One Stop Career Center. Success rates mirror the Family Now Program, and even exceed its cost effectiveness by using existing resources. There has been a better coordination of housing and employment services, and a renewed sense of accomplishment and satisfaction within the social services staff. The success of the combined efforts of MCBOSS and the Mercer Alliance has significantly reduced the number of families experiencing homelessness on any given day. The rapid re-housing strategy is allowing families to overcome their housing crisis more quickly and at lower cost than providing shelter or transitional housing. There is renewed hope of attaining the Mercer Alliance’s goal of ending homelessness in our community. Their motto, “We Can, We Must,” has become the MCBOSS mantra. Our efforts on behalf of homeless families have provided us a vehicle for helping change lives and make a difference – and that’s a good feeling.

Frank Cirillo is Director of the Mercer County Board of Social Services

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