Housing First and the Strength-Based Approach to Ending Homelessness

The strength-based approach to ending homelessness

Author Patrick Buhay is the Rapid Rehousing Program Manager at Community Rebuilders. Founded in 1993, the non-profit agency, is dedicated to ending homelessness and creating safe, affordable housing opportunities in Kent County, Michigan.

The strengths-based approach is exactly what it sounds like. We “approach” participants’ “strengths” and “base” the housing process and road to long-term housing stability around them. Our perspective is that an individual’s strengths will get him or her through the toughest situations. The strengths I often identify in the families I work with are resiliency, determination, and resolve. There are many more, of course, but I’m not writing a book.

 

Housing First is the model we use with all our participants across all programs. This model impacts families in the utmost positive way. You can tell that such a relief is lifted off the participant’s shoulders when you say, “Let’s get you housed first! Everything will come easier once you have a roof over you and your family’s heads.”

Of the many households we have served in 2015, more than 850 children have gone from an episode of homelessness to having a home to call their own.

When interviewing a previous participant’s child, I asked her, “What’s the best thing about having a new home?” She responded, “I don’t have to tell kids at school I live in the shelter anymore.”

The biggest impact families have identified in working with Keys First is being in their own, private residency, instead of having to cram their family of five into a small room at the shelter. Families find that they are able to work on other things, such as employment and healthcare, to improve their situation now that the weight of being homeless had been lifted.

No Vacancies

Author Vera Beech is the Executive Director of Community Rebuilders. Founded in 1993, the non-profit agency, is dedicated to ending homelessness and creating safe, affordable housing opportunities in Kent County, Michigan.

No Vacancies: A 4 Part Series from Executive Director: Vera Beech

Many times I have heard providers of homeless services talk about the reported 1-3% vacancy rates of apartments in our community. A 2015 Zillow article entitled, Vacancy: No Room to Rent (3/11/15), reported Grand Rapids, MI, had the nation’s lowest vacancy rate in 2015, coming in at 1.6%.

I also frequently hear about the barriers consumers have in securing housing: criminal history, evictions, no income, bad credit or — what many providers call the “impossible person to house” — a criminal sexual conduct charge. It doesn’t surprise me when consumer’s haven’t secured the housing they need.

At Community Rebuilders we have a belief:

Housing is a basic human right and we can help anyone get housed if they desire housing and agree to the full rights and obligations of tenancy.

And we live this belief. In 2015 we housed 1,892 people using the private rental market. Of the adults served:
• 32% had a diagnosed disability
• 15% were domestic violence survivors
• 29% were Veterans
• 95% exited to a permanent housing destination

It is clear to us that people who are experiencing homelessness and have “barriers” such as past evictions, no income and low credit aren’t so different from the average renter.

Housing is an equalizer. It’s a stepping stone that builds hope and inspires the people we serve to achieve their goals. Just as we ourselves search for housing when we move — to be closer to work, family or school — so do our currently homeless consumers. Sometimes they turn down units that don’t meet their needs. And that’s just fine with us. Like all of us, our consumers stay longer in a place they like, want and choose!

We rely on three keys to secure housing for people who don’t meet standard rental criteria.

Shared Vision and Mission

Key 1: Shared vision and mission

Author Vera Beech is the Executive Director of Community Rebuilders. Founded in 1993, the non-profit agency, is dedicated to ending homelessness and creating safe, affordable housing opportunities in Kent County, Michigan.

Our immediate focus is to establish shared goals that complement the individual goals of each partner. Housing Resource Specialists (HRS) explain the program as a partnership between Community Rebuilders, our consumer and their chosen landlord. Everyone in the partnership has wants, needs and goals, and there must be a clear understanding of each partner’s desires and expectations.

Consumers are asked to paint a clear picture of their ideal housing. Reference points and assumptions are checked throughout the process to ensure mutual understanding and commitment to next steps. The HRS shares their expertise and experience delivering services, and working with landlords and program participants.

We also work to identify the personal strengths of the consumer, and discuss how they can be applied to the goal of securing housing. This focus on strengths and partnership adds to motivation and infuses the process with energy and excitement to achieve long-term success. Consumers pursue housing with an individualized plan, a clear understanding of action steps and accountabilities, and the knowledge that they are capable of being a quality tenant.

Racing for Rentals

Key 2: Racing for rentals and closing the deal

Author Vera Beech is the Executive Director of Community Rebuilders. Founded in 1993, the non-profit agency, is dedicated to ending homelessness and creating safe, affordable housing opportunities in Kent County, Michigan.

We use the phrase “Racing for Rentals” to describe the friendly competition between our HRSs to see who can lease the most households in the shortest amount of time. This is an open display to our consumers that housing is being achieved every day. They may open our door feeling hopeless, but they leave inspired by those who came before them and believe that they, too, can achieve housing in the next 20 days.

 

There are several ways our consumers access the rental market. First, landlords call us and tell us when they have a unit open. Landlords know we have people searching, and they often avoid advertising so that we can send 3-5 people to look at the unit while it’s being prepped. If one of our consumers chooses the unit, the landlord packet is completed, a lease review is conducted and —as soon as the unit passes inspection – the keys are handed over. Many of our consumers use the statewide housing locator, but we also encourage them to visit the area where they want to live, look for for-rent signs or to stop by to a property management office and introduce themselves.

Our consumers take the lead in finding their unit. The level of support provided from the HRS is based on need. Community Rebuilders provides a landlord packet to consumers so they can convey important program information to the landlord. When it comes to closing the deal, the HRS is important. When we ask landlords what is most valuable to them in this arrangement, it is often the close connection to a Community Rebuilders Housing Resource Specialist. The HRS promotes a level of personal communication between the landlord and tenant which may not develop otherwise. Our HRSs promise to intervene if any problems arise.

Landlords like clear communication and lots of information about what to expect. We inform them of the timeframe for their first rental payment and the exact amount of their first check. They know they will always receive 30 days notice from Community Rebuilders before our assistance ends. Often it takes hard work and negotiations to make sure the unit meets program guidelines.

Closing the deal happens when all parties understand the transaction, benefit from it, and feel valued through the process. Lastly, we give landlords credit! Our programs depend on their partnership, and we value them and make sure they know it. Our landlords are helping to solve the problem of homelessness in our community, and we regularly celebrate their contributions.

Everyone is a VIP

Key 3: Everyone is a VIP

Author Vera Beech is the Executive Director of Community Rebuilders. Founded in 1993, the non-profit agency, is dedicated to ending homelessness and creating safe, affordable housing opportunities in Kent County, Michigan.

Our process relies on treating each partner like a VIP. We adjust our schedules; we adapt to meet their needs. We are flexible, respectful and honoring of their self-determination. We also monitor the entire helping process very closely. A once-a-week sit down is standard for people searching for housing, and if a landlord hasn’t been secured by the end of week, the consumer is instructed to contact us so that additional support can be provided. Once consumers have signed a lease, they talk with their HRS and update their goal and action plan to address the next stages in achieving long-term sustainability.

The reality is that things may not always go as planned even for VIPs. In all partnerships, disagreements and disappointment can occur. The important thing to remember is to handle frustrations and disappointments quickly and consistently. When addressing problems we:
1.Re-evaluate strengths and natural supports to see what might be applied to resolve the situation.
2.Offer extra support in a particular effort
3.Realign goals
4.Clarify expectations or accountabilities
5.Focus on leaving no persons worse off than they were before the partnership began

Landlords in our community understand the mission of Community Rebuilders, and we understand their perspective. They trust us to represent them, and we trust them to provide quality housing. We don’t have a list of landlords who house CSC offenders, or people with zero income, or persons with bad credit and evictions. The people we serve may have these labels attached to their past, but to us they are VIPs who are going to do all they can to be quality tenants.