Other lessons on serving homeless families may be drawn from the program operated by Beyond Shelter in the Los Angeles area. Beyond Shelters Housing First Program for Homeless Families began in 1988 and has been widely cited as a model for serving families with extensive supportive services needs (www.beyondshelter.org/aaa_programs/housing_first.shtml). The housing first approach in this program, as in other programs that use that name, emphasizes rapid placement in permanent housing while minimizing or avoiding transitional stays. Beyond Shelter helps families move from emergency shelters to permanent affordable rental housing scattered throughout residential neighborhoods and provides 6 to12 months of follow-up case management and services. Most families receive voucher assistance through a local housing authority, and the program provides assistance with moving expenses.
According to program administrators, three-quarters of the families served would be considered multi-problem families with unstable living patterns. Families and their case managers develop Family Action Plans to guide services. Services are provided by agencies other than the housing authority and focus on helping families retain their housing. Beyond Shelter has some aspects of a transition-in-place model, because services continue for a defined period after the housing placement. However, the families have security of tenure in their housing placement, which contrasts with many transitional programs that can evict families who do not cooperate with their services plan.
A two-year evaluation of Beyond Shelter's Housing First Program was conducted by local researchers from the University of Southern California as part of a Pew Partnership initiative. Data on 185 families were collected from April 1, 2000 to October 1, 2001, based on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) Program Logic Model for Homeless Families. Outcomes identified by the model include increased residential stability, improved mental health functioning, reduced drug and alcohol use, and increased trauma recovery. For children, outcomes include reduced emotional and behavioral problems and improved school attendance.
The study found that more than 90 percent of the mothers who graduated from the program at the end of six months in permanent housing had achieved the short, intermediate and long-term goals identified in the SAMHSA model, and more than 80 percent of the children's goals were achieved. More than 80 percent of adults were employed, and others were enrolled in job training programs. Only 2.3 percent of those who entered the program with reported substance abuse problems had relapsed, and less than 1 percent of domestic violence survivors had returned to a dangerous relationship. Some 80 percent of children were enrolled in school during the evaluation period and 77 percent attended regularly.
Hennepin County, MN, developed a shelter screening and admission system to limit access to shelters to the families that need the most help. Pregnant or parenting teens, families with more than two children or with infants, and families receiving SSI receive priority for shelter space. Within one to three days, shelter guests meet with the rapid exit coordinator for an in-depth screening that focuses on housing barriers. The family is then referred to a separate rapid exit program where a caseworker works with the family to develop a housing stabilization plan. Continued shelter stay is contingent on the family cooperating with the caseworker and the plan. The caseworker focuses on helping the family find housing and coordinates with other service providers to address other needs. Follow-up continues for six months after the family leaves shelter. Some 88 percent of families served in the rapid exit component did not return to shelter within 12 months; the average cost per family for this component was roughly $800.
Without a comparison group drawn from a similar emergency shelter population or a population placed into transitional housing with tenure dependent upon cooperation with services, it is difficult to place these outcomes in context. Nonetheless, both the Hennepin County and Beyond Shelter programs seem to demonstrate that rapid placement into permanent housing is feasible for high-needs families.