According to Dr. Sam Tsemberis, founder of Pathways to Housing, “Housing First is a simple philosophy for ending homelessness: Provide housing first, and then combine that housing with supportive treatment services in mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment.” Unlike most shelter and other short-term housing efforts, Housing First focuses on breaking the long-term cycle of homeless and addressing underlying physical and behavioral health issues. In addition, Housing First has also proven to be incredibly cost-effective for the community government providers and community programs.
Utah is well known for being the first state to adopt a statewide Housing First initiative. Beginning in 2005, the Utah Housing First initiative focused on reducing homelessness by improving coordination between all the different service providers and stakeholders in the community. Utah HMIS is a driving force behind the state’s successful Housing First initiative. The Utah HMIS statewide database and coordinated assessment tools connect community providers and enable case workers to get a complete picture of what it will take to end an individual’s homelessness.
Utah HMIS administers the statewide database in three Continuums of Care and more than 70 participating agencies. Many records are shared between agencies, including basic client information, programs, services, and some assessment data.
The statewide database also incorporates many different federal, state, and local funding sources. The statewide database is a tool that drives the decision making at Utah HMIS and the state of Utah at large. It enables Utah HMIS to provide a more complete picture of what it takes to end a client’s homelessness by seeing a client’s activities across the state. It also enables them to identify trends they wouldn’t see by only looking at isolated data.
Coordinated Assessment is an integral part of Utah Housing First. Historically providers served homeless individuals based on an agency-level first come, first served basis. A coordinated assessment tool facilitates quick identification and prioritization of individuals of the highest acuity. Utah utilizes the VI-SPDAT and SPDAT assessment tools and then service providers draw from the top of the prioritization list to offer housing assistance and other services to individuals.
Utah has made great strides using coordinated assessment to make their Housing First initiative inclusive of several homeless sub-populations. A unique subpopulation they have been able to include in their Housing First process is the Domestic Violence survivors. By law, there can be no identifying client records for survivors of domestic violence. This can make it tricky to add survivors of domestic violence to service priority lists.
Utah HMIS created an innovative solution where a survivor of domestic violence is assigned an anonymous identifier in the statewide HMIS database and then, based on their assessment, they are added to the housing priority list. Ashley Tolman, Special Projects Manager for the Utah State Community Services Office, “We’ve really taken on the task to pull our state service providers and our statewide Utah Domestic Violence Coalition and HMIS team together to determine how we can integrate them into this process. The domestic violence survivors (through their alias) show up in the exact same housing priority list as anyone else so they are not excluded in any way from accessing those services.”
DIVERSION PILOT PROGRAM
When individuals and families arrive at a shelter, they are usually in crisis mode and may not realize they have options other than spending a night in the shelter. Diversion is a strategy that prevents homelessness by helping people seeking shelter identify immediate alternate housing arrangements and, if necessary, connecting them with services and financial assistance to help them return to permanent housing.
Utah HMIS partnered with the Utah Community Action program, Utah 2-1-1, and the Road Home to develop a Diversion pilot program at the Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City. When an individual arrives at the shelter, staff at The Road Home conduct an assessment and then discuss options that will prevent them from spending a night in the shelter.
“We are eager and excited about the success of our Diversion program,” said Tolman. “Being able to do homeless prevention at this point is far more effective because we are able to provide help to the individuals in crisis mode. This is an important front door approach for reducing homelessness all together.”
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