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Photo by Ryan Lassard.




Centralizing shelters
As lawmakers threaten cuts, homeless shelters build new statewide program

05/21/15
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



A new standardized assessment form that every shelter in New Hampshire will use before admitting new individuals is meant to prioritize the candidates with the greatest needs and keep more people from becoming homeless by directing them to other services. But some shelters aren't happy with the change and say the program is an unfunded mandate by U.S. Housing and Urban Development. Shelters are getting fewer dollars from the federal government, and the New Hampshire House passed a budget that would cut $4 million over the next biennium from the emergency shelter program at the Department of Health and Human Services.

 
More diversion
New Hampshire Bureau of Homeless and Housing Services administrator Maureen Ryan said cuts that deep would affect all the homeless services.
“We're concerned about what that will mean for the service system,” Ryan said.
New Hampshire has 34 agencies running 42 shelters. According to DHHS, those shelters served a total of 4,760 people in the last fiscal year. That number includes 855 children, 890 physically disabled people, 1,006 victims of domestic violence and 1,300 people with mental illness. But there's another number that officials are working on, and they want to see it grow — 5,016 people were diverted from shelters by Homeless Prevention Intervention programs that found either alternative housing, rent assistance or some other service that prevented the person from becoming homeless.
If the $4 million reduction stays in the state budget, homeless intervention would be the first program to get cut, according to Ryan.
“The first priority is emergency shelters,” Ryan said.
But in recent years, there's been an increased interest in diversion efforts that involve screening people requesting a shelter bed and trying to find a way to keep them from becoming homeless wherever possible. The roots of this can be traced to the 2009 HEARTH Act, which consolidated HUD's grant programs and increased prevention resources, among other things.
More recently, the last round of HUD funding to New Hampshire's Continuum of Care network came with a string attached. The shelters have to start using a standard form for the screening process and the state committed to have that new system, called Coordinated Entry, up and running by July 1.
“What we’re trying to do is ensure that these limited resources are available to people with the most need,” Ryan said. “We expect it will be a work in progress. We don’t think we’re gonna have the whole state up and running perfectly by July 1.”
Lorrie Dale, the executive director of Concord's McKenna House, thinks the added screening process wouldn't do much to reduce the number of people she serves.
“You can't give anybody a food card that would have prevented them from coming into our shelter. You couldn't have given them a gas card that would've prevented them getting into the shelter,” Dale said. “There's really no [opportunity for] diversion.”
While this will be new for most of the state, some places like the seacoast have been doing something similar for the more than a year.
Martha Stone, the executive director of Cross Roads House in Portsmouth, said a single point person takes the calls for all the homeless people in the region looking for a bed. He collects basic data for HUD and then assesses the callers to see if there are opportunities for diverting them to other services instead.
“Without that assessment, we were pretty much taking people into shelters on a first come, first served basis if we had the space,” Stone said. “Now we're able to much better assess people's needs and prioritize those who are most vulnerable every single day.”
 
Unfunded mandate
That point person who takes the phone calls in the seacoast is Erik Swanson at Strafford County's Community Action Program. His position and much of the planning that went into the system there were aided by about $200,000 in funds that have been coming from United Way of the Greater Seacoast since 2009. Of that, United Way committed to give about $30,000 to $35,000 annually to help pay for Swanson's position for the first two years, according to Lauren Wool at United Way.
But it's what happens after that money runs out that has folks like Kevin Kintner at New Horizons in Manchester worried.
“The added layer of bureaucracy can be something that can be onerous and looks onerous from the outset,” said Kintner.
He fears Coordinated Entry will require organizations to hire new people to do the work, which he said is what happened when HUD started requiring data collection years ago.
“We were one of the last holdouts on that,” Kintner said. “We finally started paying someone part time to do the [HUD database]. ... Getting the data is very good but there's less and less money coming from the feds.”
Lorrie Dale at McKenna House agrees.
“It's mandated by the federal government with no money attached to it,” said Dale. “We get lost in the paperwork sometimes. We would all rather be doing direct services than filling out the paperwork….”
Part of the challenge for Ryan at BHHS has been dispelling some of the myths about Coordinated Entry. Some fear, for example, there will be a 17-page questionnaire with a point system ranking homeless people, but Ryan said the form will likely be three or four pages long, and there won't be any point system. 
“The outcomes show, across the board, that this kind of coordinated access service is ... better for our clients,” Ryan said. “It's ultimately going to be better for our providers because they'll be getting the right people at the right time in their programs.”
And while she agrees Coordinated Entry is an unfunded mandate, Ryan said individual organizations now have new ways to apply for direct HUD grants that they didn't have access to before.
 
Juggling the homeless
Martha Stone said the program in the seacoast not only diverts more folks away from shelters, it also connects the handful of shelters in the seacoast to a more centralized system. Still, Stone said, it wasn't always smooth sailing when they were rolling out the program.
“There were a lot of people who had a very difficult time thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I can't call you up directly and say do you have a bed and can I send this person over?'” Stone said. “It was a big shift for a lot of different people.”
Shelters in Concord and Manchester were seeing more people arriving from the seacoast when beds there were unavailable.
“We [at New Horizons] had concerns about this right from the beginning,” Kintner said. “The coordinated access on the seacoast has been sending people that may not have been appropriate for here.”
Swanson, the “coordinated access” person on the seacoast, said he now tells individuals to call New Horizons before going there.
“We prefer to have people talk with us directly,” Kintner said. “A lot of people don't want to sleep in the same room as 50 other people, for example.”
Homeless people get shuffled around from city to city, town to town all the time. Michael Robb, a former resident of McKenna House, remembers recent cases where people were being sent from Manchester to Concord.
“New Horizons, the shelter down there, started giving people bus tickets and saying, 'Go to Concord. Go to Concord. They have room for you there,' just to get them out of Manchester, when, in fact, there was no room,” Robb said. “There wasn't even a shelter open yet.”
New Horizons could not confirm that bus tickets were ever handed out; regardless, the hope is that this system will eventually cut down on any kind of similar juggling.
“It's really important that the programs have a say on who's coming into their shelters,” Dale said. “Every shelter has different policies and different rules.”
For instance, Dale said, the shelter in Concord is a dry house and self-driven, meaning residents have to pull their own weight.
“The fact of the matter is … what is gonna work in the seacoast or in Manchester is not going to work in the North Country,” Ryan said.
Ryan said Tri-County CAP handles all the homeless in Coos, Grafton and Carroll Counties and they have a single shelter. Southwestern Community Services in Keene has a system that handles the Monadnock region and Nashua has a single 800 number that rotates between three different programs depending on the day of the week. McKenna House has been working with Carey House in Laconia by sending each other daily emails updating the list of available beds.
 
Significant change
This new system would not necessarily replace what everyone is already doing, but it will create point people — like Swanson in the seacoast — for each local service delivery area. Folks like Dale still believe the solution is adding more beds, rather than diversion efforts.
“I'm not sure this is the answer,” Dale said. “I'm trying to be part of the solution and not the problem, but it's very difficult because there's not enough shelter beds available.”
McKenna House is expanding to add 16 new beds by December.
Martha Stone at Cross Roads House can appreciate Dale's and others' concerns, but she thinks they'll eventually come around like some service providers have done in Portsmouth.
“People who initially came in as the biggest skeptics became the biggest cheerleaders for the program, because change is difficult, and it was a significant change,” Stone said.
But if the final state budget cuts $4 million from the shelter program, the mandated change will likely have minimal impact, as there may be fewer homeless prevention programs to divert people to.  
 
As seen in the May 21, 2015 issue of the Hippo.





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