This surprised me, and it might surprise you: The vast majority of families who enter the District’s shelters — about 90 percent — do not arrive there from their own homes or apartments. They come from a relative’s or a friend’s house.
The homeless family may have been turned out because the host family — so to speak — has financial problems of its own. Or it may be that the head of the host family — a grandmother, say, or an aunt — despairs of the situation ever improving and says enough is enough.
“They may not be welcome there anymore, or it’s gotten overcrowded,” said Jamey Burden, vice president for housing programs and policy at Community of Hope, a nonprofit group that works with poor and homeless families in the District and is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
Combating homelessness in Washington involves a lot of different tactics, from providing temporary shelter at the troubled D.C. General campus all the way to what’s called permanent supportive housing, a long-term arrangement for those families deemed too broken to ever pay their own rent.
Last year in the District, something new was added to the mix. It’s called the Homelessness Prevention Program. Community of Hope is one of four area organizations involved in the program, which is coordinated by the D.C. Department of Human Services. The basic principle is this: If you have somewhere to stay — anywhere at all — you won’t be ushered into a shelter. Instead, a case manager will try to mediate your current situation.
“It’s a light-touch service that hopefully helps the family with their immediate housing instability crisis but also helps them with their longer housing stability plans,” Jamey said.
In the short term, a Community of Hope caseworker might be able to broker an agreement with whomever the homeless family has been staying. If there’s a concern over money, a fund can be dipped into.
“We’ll talk to Grandma and see if it’s a financial issue,” Jamey said. “We might be able to provide a little utility bill assistance to lighten Grandma’s load.”
Grandma might be more willing to agree to such an offer if the mom or dad in question agrees to attend financial literacy and life skills classes at Community of Hope, as well as participate in employment counseling.
In their poverty and understandable desperation, many clients think the shelter is best place for them and their children, but shelters are expensive, as are transitional and permanent housing programs.
“The juggling act we’re trying to do is to help serve [clients] — to empower them so they don’t have to go into shelter — but at the same time acknowledge that the short-term solution is not going to be necessarily perfect either,” Jamey said.
As with so much involving housing instability, the idea is to stabilize, then focus.
In the summer, November DuBose was living in her car in the District with her three sons. November asked her godsister if the boys could stay at her house. The godsister took the entire family in while November went to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center on Rhode Island Avenue NE to see about entering shelter care.
Instead, she was referred to Community of Hope’s Homelessness Prevention Program.
“When I got to Community of Hope, the plan was: I need a job,” November said.
Only with a job would November be able to qualify for the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. It provides money for a security deposit and the first month’s rent, barriers to many families looking for an apartment.
“We talked weekly,” November said of her Community of Hope case manager. They discussed employment and housing resources. November was able to find a full-time office job. She also has an apartment lined up. She’ll be able to go from her godsister’s home to the apartment — without a stop at a shelter.
In the first year of the Homelessness Prevention Program, Community of Hope served 576 families in the program. Jamey said that of those, only 66 — 11 percent — entered shelter . (The other organizations working with DHS on the program are Wheeler Creek Community Development Corp., Capitol Hill Group Ministry and MBI Health Services.)
“For me, Community of Hope has been a good support,” November said. “The prevention program isn’t ‘We’ll help you get from Point A to Point B, and then that’s it, you’re on your own.’ The prevention program is ‘We’ll help you get from Point A to Point B, and then we’ll be in the background if you need us.’’’
Readers are encouraged to donate to Community of Hope through The Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising drive. To give online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Community of Hope” and mail it to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
Join me Friday at 3 on Facebook Live for a discussion with Community of Hope’s president, Kelly Sweeney McShane, and a client who turned her life around with help from the charity. Go to facebook.com/washpostpr.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.