Leigh Shields-Church’s “rapid-results” team emerged from a conference room lined with marker-scrawled battle plans with a new strategy and a bold goal: Place nearly all of New Haven’s chronically homeless into apartments of their own, by July 30.
The strategy resulted from a two-day “boot camp” attended by a dozen of New Haven’s homelessness services providers this week.
On Wednesday and Thursday, staffers from a host of social service agencies mapped out the ambitious approach to tackle homelessness in the city, and elected Shields-Church (pictured) of the Connecticut Mental Health Center as team leader.
The 100-day plan represents a rare coordinated effort between the many agencies in New Haven that deal with homelessness. For the next three months, a host of organizations will be teaming up to assess who among the city’s homeless need housing the most, helping those people to get ready to be housed, and then assigning them to apartments.
The 100-day challenge, funded by the United Way, is inspired by a similar program targeting homelessness on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, carried out with the help of the Rapid Results Institute. That organization usually works abroad, finding ways to jump-start international development projects with short-term, intensive efforts. It’s been applying those same techniques to tackle the problem of homelessness in this country.
Nashville and Chicago have undertaken similar attacks on homelessness. The initiatives target the chronically homeless, people who may have been out on the streets for years. The “housing first” model has shown that cities can drastically reduce homelessness and its costs by simply finding homes for the people who use the most homelessness resources or who are most endangered by homelessness.
On Wednesday, Rapid Results founder Nadim Matta (pictured), who happens to live in Branford, kicked off the two-day session in a conference room at the William Caspar Graunstein Memorial Fund in Hamden. He portrayed the boot camp as a chance to choose an ambitious goal and then map a path to achieve it.
Wednesday morning, the conference room was filled with directors and supervisors from local, state and federal homelessness and housing agencies. Organizations represented in the room included the Columbus House, the New Haven Housing Authority, Yale-New Haven Hospital, the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, the Veterans Administration, the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Also in the room were a dozen front-line staffers who do the day-to-day work of caring for the homeless. Those people would set the 100-day goal and map the pathway to achieve it, explained Alison Cunningham, head of the Columbus House. She urged them to think big, to be bold: “We want to give you guys the world to play with. We want you to create the system that’s going to work.”
After a couple of hours of ice-breakers and preliminary planning, the big cheeses left the rank-and-file to dive into the details.
On Thursday afternoon, the directors returned to a room transformed — tables pushed to the side and walls lined with sheets covered with notes, goals and “sub-goals,”checklists, acronyms, and timelines. Shields-Church rose to present the team’s work, to walk everyone through the 100-day plan the group had come up with.
First, the goal: New Haven will house 75 percent of its chronically homeless population — approximately 140 people — by July 30.
To do that, homelessness agencies will coordinate on a three-step process of assessing people, assisting them to get ready for housing, and then assigning them to housing.
The assessments will happen through outreach — people actively going out and interviewing homeless people — and through “inreach” — assessing people who land in the emergency room, for instance. Homelessness service providers will use an assessment tool that produces a score from one to 20. The higher the number, the more vulnerable that homeless person is to danger and even death.
All those assessments will be used to prioritize who gets housing first. The scores will be entered into an ad-hoc database created by the United Way’s J.R. Logan (pictured). A team of providers will then assign “navigators” to help people to gather the documents they need to get ready to move into a home: birth certificates, drivers licenses, social security cards.
Meanwhile, other team members will compile a list of available housing options. Those will include subsidized apartments as well as non-subsidized units, short-term “rapid rehousing” and long term “permanent supported housing.”
A designated “matcher” will be in charge of connecting homeless people with housing opportunities, ideally giving people a choice of where to live. By July 30, if all goes according to plan, about 140 now-homeless people will be in homes of their own.
Mid-presentation Thursday, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp (pictured) made a surprise visit. After listening to the plan, she offered her approval and support. She hailed the 100-day challenge for “overcoming the silos” that separate social service agencies and for tackling the tough cases, the 20 percent of homeless who use 80 percent of homelessness services.
People who work with the programs that are in place are being helped, she said. “Others get lost in cycles.”
“We’ve done all the easy stuff,” she said. “We need to drill down to people who interact most with systems.”
Harp offered to find staff and volunteer support for the challenge. “We are your partners.”
“This is what we’ve been waiting for for 30 years,” Columbus House’s Cunningham (pictured) said of the 100-day plan and the inter-agency cooperation.
One by one, members of the design team spoke about how excited they were, how long they’ve wanted to make a radical shift in the way the city approaches homelessness.
Amid all the excitement, Matta offered a reminder: The work is just beginning. “It’s going to be tough in the next 100 days.”