GUEST BLOGGER: Linda Wood-Boyle, President & Executive Director, HomeStart Inc.

 

Providing opportunity for all can be a tough task when addressing homelessness. But organizations across the United States, and here in Massachusetts, have found success in ending homelessness through creative thinking. As an agency that has worked with homeless families and individuals for 20 years, we recognize that one of the most creative solutions to ending homelessness is to stop it before it started.

Ten years ago, HomeStart, Inc. became one of the first agencies in Boston to focus on homelessness prevention. At the time, there wasn’t much we could do to help families and individuals on the precipice of homelessness until after they were already in shelter. We recognized, however, that it didn’t make much sense to wait until people had entered the system to help them if there were ways to offer them effective assistance while they were still housed.

Thus, our homelessness prevention program was born. It has been incredibly successful in keeping people out of the shelter system and lowering taxpayer costs. We strongly believe it could be even more effective if resources were available to help people long before they are living on the edge.

In the decade since we began providing homelessness prevention services, we’ve learned how much more cost-effective it is to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place than it is to help house them after the fact. Consider these facts: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts spends $30,000 every time a family enters the state family shelter system, including resources spent on shelters and motels, and $2,000 per month per bed in the individual shelter system. According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, in December 2012, there were 3,800 families with children and pregnant women in Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program. You can do the math – $30,000 times 3,800 families. Failing to prevent people from falling into homelessness is expensive for the Commonwealth, and not in the best interest of those families to be in shelters or motels.

In contrast, HomeStart has helped almost 3,000 families and individuals in the 10 years we’ve been doing this work. Our average cost is $1,500, which includes emergency rental assistance and administrative costs. In fact, in assessing a pilot program we are pursuing with the Boston Housing Authority, we estimate that we reduced the number of forced evictions by 61 percent, which saved the city and taxpayers more than $360,000 in eviction costs alone.

There are always more people we can help who are living on the edge, but as we are looking to the future, and where our resources can best be applied, we think it makes sense for agencies like HomeStart to direct our attention to individuals and families long before they reach the crisis stage. As an agency, we provide stabilization services to people coming out of shelter and living in transitional or permanent housing. Doesn’t it make sense to provide families in crisis with those kinds of services before they are on the verge of eviction?

The federal government, through the US Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), has put a lot of effort into applying the principles of Housing First to chronically homeless individuals. And by most accounts, including through the experience that we have working with the chronically homeless at HomeStart, it has been a success. By providing men and women who have struggled to remain housed with wrap-around services in addition to their housing, we have seen a significant number of individuals successfully break the cycle of chronic homelessness. It may be time to apply a similar level of care and assistance to those who are near homelessness, but haven’t quite reached crisis stage yet.

We know prevention works. In a strange way, we can tell through the absence – the absence of individuals and families who we see in shelter once we’ve successfully prevented them from entering the system or the absence of phone calls and requests for assistance we receive from them once we’ve helped them avoid homelessness. But we can also tell by how cost-effective it is for the Commonwealth and its taxpayers. As we look to the next ten years and to the creative solutions we need to provide opportunity for all, it makes sense to apply what we’ve learned to help people before they even get to the immediate crisis stage. By doing so, we’ll be proving once again that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – in this case, the pounds are measured in stable lives and lower costs.