Last month, the Building Bridges blog launched a new series devoted to unpacking some of the commonly misunderstood housing and homelessness terms and concepts. The first post in the series was dedicated to exploring and exploding some misperceptions around “Housing First;” the second post unpacked Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (or NOAH). These posts are inspired by the 2025 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Strategy (CMHHS), which was launched in April 2021. The 2025 CMHHS represents the first time that the public and private sectors have come together to comprehensively address the entire housing continuum, from housing instability to homelessness, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
As the last post in this series highlighted, advancing widescale solutions – even the ones backed by research and data – also means overcoming obstacles that have historically gotten in the way. Some obstacles take the shape of myths or misconceptions.
This third post focuses on the role of supportive services in the work to end and prevent homelessness, including what they mean and look like for different housing interventions; common misperceptions around supportive services; and ultimately, what all of this can mean for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
WHAT ARE SUPPORTIVE SERVICES?
Supportive services are not housing. However, services can be coupled with housing assistance to ensure that households can access and/or sustain housing. Supportive services can include a range of interventions, such as case management; housing search assistance; budget and credit counseling; medication management; mental health and/or substance use counseling; and other therapeutic services.
The frequency and duration of any supportive services will vary, based upon the needs of the household. A service could be a one-time occurrence, simply to overcome a barrier; or to identify or move into housing. Services may be provided for days, weeks, or months, as a household stabilizes. And, for some, supportive services might need to be furnished for a much longer period, even indefinitely.
WHAT DO SUPPORTIVE SERVICES INCLUDE?
The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) details what is included within the definition of “supportive services.” For specific HUD-funded project types, HUD also sets guidelines for what supportive services should look like. For example, in Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) projects, supportive services must be provided in such a way that residents can “live as independently as is practicable throughout the duration of their residence in the project.” PSH includes the permanent provision of housing until the household no longer needs the provided housing. HUD specifies that all rapid re-housing (RRH) projects (which include a housing subsidy of up to 24 months) require at least one meeting per month with a case manager to assist the participating household in maintaining long-term housing stability. Although PSH and RRH include supportive services as part of their models, federal funds can only cover the rental subsidy. This means that it is left to other agencies and organizations to make up the difference in order to provide housing assistance. Locally, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services provides the funding for supportive services to help close this gap for providers in the community.
By HUD’s definition, supportive services can include:
- Case Management: defined as “assessing, arranging, coordinating, and monitoring the delivery of individualized services to meet the needs of the program participant,” case management may include counseling; developing, securing and coordinating services; obtaining benefits; monitoring and evaluating progress; providing information and referrals to other providers; providing ongoing risk assessment and safety planning; and developing an individualized housing and/or service plan.
- Child Care: under certain provisions, entities can establish and operate childcare facilities or furnish households with childcare vouchers.
- Education Services: improving knowledge and basic educational skills such as through GED programs, tutoring, and counseling.
- Employment assistance and job training: establishing and operating employment assistance and job training, including providing stipends; employment screening and testing; structured job skills and job-seeking skills; and counseling and job coaching.
- Food: activities related to providing meals and groceries.
- Housing Search and Counseling Services: assistance with locating, obtaining and retaining suitable housing, which can also include credit counseling and mediation with property owners.
- Legal Services: legal representation in matters that affect the ability of an individual to access or sustain housing.
- Life Skills Training: includes “critical life management skills that may never have been learned or have been list during the course of a physical or mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse, and homelessness;” such as money and household management; conflict management; nutrition; and parenting skills.
- Mental Health Services: outpatient treatment of mental health conditions provided by licensed professionals, like counseling, therapy, and prescription and medication management.
- Outpatient Health Services: direct outpatient treatment of medical conditions.
- Outreach Services: initial assessment, crisis counseling, and activities focused on addressing urgent medical needs to provide immediate support and intervention.
- Substance Abuse Treatment Services: intake assessment, outpatient treatment, counseling, and drug testing services.
- Transportation: cost of traveling on public transportation; or related to car repairs/maintenance of private vehicle.
- Utility Deposits: assistance with paying for utility deposits.
WHO NEEDS SUPPORTIVE SERVICES?
“Supportive housing” (not to be confused with supportive services) is used when housing plus supportive services are intertwined. However, not everyone needs supportive housing. Supportive housing is intended for households with disabilities who need services to access and/or maintain their housing. Before being subsumed under the Continuum of Care (CoC) program, HUD’s Supportive Housing Program (SHP) helped “develop and provide housing and related supportive services for people moving from homelessness to independent, supportive living.” Today, Permanent Supportive Housing, which falls under the CoC Program, prioritizes households experiencing chronic homelessness.
These households typically have the most complex challenges: experiencing at least one year of homelessness, combined with extremely low income and/or disabling condition such as mental or physical health, or substance use. And, while homeless, households experiencing chronic homelessness typically frequent other costly systems like emergency health services and criminal justice.
Supportive housing for households with such complex challenges is effective at improving housing stability and reducing the utilization of other systems. The Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg evaluation of the community effort to end chronic homelessness is one of the latest studies to show these results.
However, many households can sustain housing with little-to-no supportive services at all. Of the 3,390 of people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg in May 2021, only 20% were experiencing chronic homelessness, and therefore in need of long-term supportive services.
According to data released from the U.S. Treasury last week, less than 4% of the COVID-19 emergency rental relief aid had been disbursed as of May 2021. This means that of the $46 billion allocated for the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) Program, only $1.5 billion has actually gotten to struggling households. The total count of those helped so far: 350,000. According to the most recent Household Pulse Survey, 3.4 million renter households report they are either “somewhat or very likely” to face eviction in the coming months. The national moratorium enacted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expires in fewer than 30 days with little likelihood it will be extended.
There is not enough housing inventory, at any price point, to meet the demand for it. And, there is certainly not enough affordable housing – with or without supportive services. This further underscores the importance and urgency of distributing precious resources (like the ERA program) to help households both access and sustain their housing.
Coupled with rental assistance, supportive services (in all shapes and sizes) are a critical component of the work to address housing instability and homelessness, especially for households with complex challenges. But, supportive services, alone, cannot end homelessness; further, supportive services need not be offered to everyone.
Housing, alone, remains the primary solution to ending and preventing homelessness. But, too often, the spotlight shifts from the system’s failure to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing for everyone to the perceived deficiencies of an individual or family. This thread is followed to identifying supportive services as the solution to “fix” these households.
A potential danger exists where agencies or organizations evaluate “motivation” and/or “willingness to engage” in supportive services as a prerequisite for accessing or sustaining housing. This approach is in opposition to “housing first,” and can even perpetuate homelessness. Systems and structures can and should adapt to meet households “where they are” to support their housing goals, facilitating access to every opportunity possible so long as the household desires the services.
Stay tuned for future posts covering common housing and homelessness-related misconceptions and myths.
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.