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Family Homelessness

Wed, Jan 2, 2013

Chicago develops tools for helping vulnerable families and individuals obtain scarce housing and navigate a complicated social service system

Chicago is leading the nation in a methodology for prioritizing the scarce supply of affordable housing to the homeless people who need it most.

Brittney Posey and her children, along with Beacon Therapeutic Therapist, TeraKesha.

“We know the need outweighs our resources,” said Christine Haley, who is associate director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing Illinois (CSH-Illinois), which is the interim program director for the 100,000 Homes campaign in Chicago. Catholic Charities will transition into heading this centralized referral system next year.
The supply of permanent supportive housing is about 7,700 units (mostly managed by non-profits) and growing; annual turnover is five percent, or 380 units, Haley said. In addition, thanks to its performance, Chicago’s Continuum of Care was awarded a bonus of 297 units for scattered sites across the city from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Non-profits managing these units include Inspiration Corporation, Center for Housing and Health/AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Chicago Housing, Facing Forward to End Homelessness, LaCasa Norte, Lincoln Park Community Shelter, Matthew House, Primo Center, Renaissance Social Services Inc. and Trilogy.

In terms of demand, Chicago had 6,546 people living in shelters or on the streets according to the 2011 Point in Time count required by HUD every two years, Advocates, however, say the need for affordable housing could be much greater, based on an all-time high of 17,000+ students in Chicago Public Schools who self-identified as homeless. These students are “doubled up:” living with friends or relatives; but this is still homelessness, because they are not in homes of their own. In addition, the stresses of living in someone else’s home makes their housing unstable. The HUD definition of homelessness does not reflect the larger numbers of “doubled up” people, however.

The 100,000 Homes nationwide campaign (now known as Common Ground) has given advocates a new tool for better housing placement. In August 2010, Chicago volunteers visited shelters and went into the streets to survey and photograph homeless people in order to give names and faces to the list for housing.

Individuals were ranked according to a “vulnerability index:” those most likely to die if they remained homeless. This index includes the following factors: homelessness over six months; liver or end-stage kidney disease; HIV/AIDS; frostbite; age over 60; “trimorbidity,” or mental health issues in combination with substance abuse and another chronic condition; three or more emergency room visits in the previous three months; three or more hospital stays or ER visits in the past year. (See StreetWise, June 20-26 2012).

When a “central referral system” comes online in the near future, people meeting seven vulnerability standards, for example, will be ranked higher on the list for housing than those with only three.

When Chicago signed up to be part of the 100,000 Homes campaign, it agreed to take the vulnerability index a step further by tailoring it to family homelessness, said Susan Reyna, president and CEO of Beacon Therapeutic Diagnostic Treatment Center in Chicago, which is the largest provider of mobile mental health and supportive services to homeless families in the city of Chicago.

“We felt Chicago had enough information to expand and revise the tool based on what we know about our families who are homeless,” Reyna said.

Besides residential instability, the family vulnerability index looks at the likelihood that the family could be torn apart if they remain homeless, Reyna said. Older boys, for example, might be unwelcome in shelters that cater primarily to women and might be sent to live with relatives. And the longer a family is on the street, the more likely the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) will become involved, she said.

Family vulnerability factors include being a young mom; past involvement with child welfare agencies; pregnancies before age 20; multiple children under age 5; medical/behavioral/mental health problems in either parent or child (See chart on Page 13).

All of these factors not only increase the length of a family’s homelessness, they raise the risk of family disintegration, Reyna said. As with the individual vulnerability index, the more indicators a family scores, the higher they are ranked on the housing list.

“The goal with the initiative is to support the most vulnerable families and long-term, to reduce homeless recidivism and impact the next generation,” Reyna said.
Does the current picture of family homelessness reflect a second generation of parents who were unstably housed in their youth or the continuing stagnant economy? Reyna was asked.

“We’ve been at this 20 years, and we are still seeing second generation housing instability,” she responded. “When we first started, we saw young moms in their 30s who grew up in shelters. Now we see people who were housed randomly; they were housed, then in shelters, doubled up and then maybe they got an apartment for brief stint, lost that, ended up doubled up. I think in terms of impact of the economy, when they do get their housing, their wages are unable to maintain their housing despite the various levels of support.”

These families are primarily single-parent, headed by women. They may work at fast food or in day labor, Reyna said. If they are on Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) they might receive $354 monthly but pay $150 in rent. Groceries and emergencies can put them in arrears, and emergency services can only be accessed every 12 to 18 months.

Chronically homeless families also face difficulties navigating the homeless services system, which Beacon learned firsthand through its FACT program, a collaboration with Heartland Alliance, Inner Voice and Voices for Illinois Children. The program uses assertive community treatment instead of clinic-based services to minimize the impact of homelessness on child development.

According to FACT prepared material, homeless children may be in poorer health than their housed peers because they do not have family physicians. They are also dependent on mothers who may have been impoverished, abused or in foster care. “As these young women emerge into adulthood and give birth to a chlid, the demands of parenthood derail their own development and limit their opportunities to build a cohesive identity through education or work.”

“Beacon has always worked with the most vulnerable: those with psychiatric needs, medically complex, more past trauma exposure,” Reyna said. “In terms of prioritization of the most vulnerable, it makes sense in terms of allocating resources to those in higher need.”

Beacon secured a family outreach team after obtaining a grant from The Chicago Community Trust and has worked with 49 vulnerable families since March. Because the families move around a lot, Beacon has been able to keep track of them, “making sure everything is in order so when they get picked for housing, they are ready to go,” Reyna said.

Brittany Posey heads one of 18 families that Beacon has housed through this program. Posey, a mother of three, appeared with Reyna on Beacon’s November 6 live call-in show on CAN TV.

Posey first became pregnant in high school. She had been doubled up homeless but was asked to leave when one of her hosts developed an illness. She said that she didn’t want to burden other people when she was homeless. “When you’re living in their household, they’re raising your kids.”

Her children are more energetic now that they are housed than they were living in a shelter, when they were aggressive and angry, she said. She wants to start them on the right path now by showing she can care for them, but the biggest challenge is not having sufficient education to get a good job. She said she sells Avon cosmetics now but wishes to go back to school in the next three years.

Posey said the Beacon program is helping with immediate needs, such as furniture, glassware, advice on budgeting and even the location of food pantries in her new neighborhood. She grew up on the South Side and her new apartment is on the West Side.
The huge change in neighborhoods notwithstanding, Posey is grateful. “A lot of landlords don’t want to rent to young moms,” she said.

Posey’s advice to the cable television audience?

“Never give up. Keep your head up and you will get blessings eventually.”

Posey had never lived independently, so Beacon’s program had to show her how to shop for groceries and do laundry, Reyna said. “You give them all the skills so that they don’t end up homeless a year from now. She has three children. If you help her, she will then be able to parent her children better and the children will continue on a normal trajectory as opposed to this transiency.”

In the past, families had to essentially had to be their own social workers, in terms of knowing who might have housing to match their needs and getting themselves onto waiting lists, Reyna and Haley said.

Now, however, Chicago is moving to a Central Referral System (CRS), which will make navigating homeless services easier. Households are prioritized in the system by Vulnerability Index Score, length of time homeless and date of application, Haley said. Agencies that received bonus project funding are required to pull applicants from the CRS.

The federal HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act also requires communities to have a coordinated access system, she added. The CRS will play a role in this single-point-of-access system, but it will not be the whole system. The City of Chicago and homeless service providers and consumers will develop a city-wide plan for coordinated access.

In the meantime, Reyna noted, anyone can fill out the CRS application online, whether they are in a shelter receiving case management or doubled up with friends or family. This application asks not only whether people are doubled up but whether they have substance abuse or domestic violence issues, their criminal records and their educational background.

Simultaneously, the vulnerability tool can also work to help families find housing, even if they don’t score high on it.

“It’s about finding the right match,” she said. “There are service-rich programs for those who need it most but for a family who just needs housing, and minimal support, rapid re-housing can provide quick assistance to people without a long history of homelessness. You just get a deposit, rental assistance and you’re good to go.

“I actually think we are ahead of the game,” she said of the vulnerability indexes and central referral system as homeless system management tools. “I feel we are getting a better grasp on some of the more complex needs of families that either will stay in the system longer or will continue to come back unless offered the right supports and advocacy. It’s providing a framework that can help us provide the services.”

Michelle Sheaffer, meanwhile, is enjoying her second Christmas tree as an independent adult in her permanent affordable apartment on the North Side. She has pictures on her walls and she marvels that she can do laundry in her own unit while being interviewed over the telephone for this story.

“I didn’t think this life was possible for me.”

But it wasn’t always so for Sheaffer, who is 42 and the mother of an 8-year-old daughter and 20-month old son.

In the middle of her freshman year of high school, Sheaffer was nearly killed in a car accident that left keloid scars on her face. She dropped out of school and developed what she admits is low self-esteem. Her mother died when she was 20. “Being a child of bitterness and anger, my aunties didn’t want to bother with me.” She says she gravitated to the streets, to gang banging and using drugs, which kept her homeless.

“I thought living on the street was the only way out. I didn’t have to pay no bills, raise no kids.” On occasion she would wind up in jail. “It was a place to eat, a place to rest and then I would hit the streets again. Maybe I wasn’t tired of the lifestyle yet and I didn’t know they had all these resources.”

Her first four children, however, were all adopted by others “because I didn’t have the courage or the willingness to raise them.”

When she was pregnant with her son at the Haymarket Moms project, however, Sheaffer said she had a spiritual experience. “I was tired, I had matured. God saw I wanted better for me. He had always wanted better for me but I always chose the lesser because it was familiar.”

She was in an Englewood shelter in 2010 when she was referred to a Heartland Alliance program in Hyde Park that led to her permanent apartment with HOW this July. She brought her own furniture from the last program; HOW gave her two twin beds as well as a larger bed for herself and a $200 Target card for household goods.

“I am getting better,” she said, “doing what the program asks me. Parenting is new to me. Living life clean and sober is new, being happy is new to me. I take it literally one day at a time.”

The newness can be overwhelming to her so she doesn’t “put too much on her plate,” she said. Following someone else’s instincts rather than her own about attending a class once caused her to relapse years ago when she was in a recovery home.

“I’m having this new lifestyle,” she said. “I had to realize, ‘Michelle, you can do this.’” She’s been reunited with her other four children and has even taken a vacation with them.

“It’s a miracle. One of them I didn’t know was dead or alive. Of course there are some issues, resentment, but we dug in. It’s a miracle they’re introducing me as their mom.”

She wants to become a substance abuse counselor and an evangelist. “I need to take the GED and do what I need to do to become financially independent. Since God gave me self-esteem I haven’t looked back and I won’t be homeless.”

Written by Suzanne Hanney,
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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