On March 18, a new Building Bridges blog series was launched to share solutions from other communities and highlight key interventions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week’s blog post focused on how communication among and across communities has improved in response to COVID-19. That post also shared information about the launch of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hub for Housing Information related to COVID-19.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in funding from both the public and private sectors to assist those at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness to safely shelter-in-place. With the release of these new dollars is a requirement to collect and report on outcomes to gauge the efficacy of federally funded efforts. Homeless services organizations have, by virtue of implementing new protocols and procedures, started to gather new data. An example of this new information is the extent and degree of COVID-19 symptoms among people requesting housing assistance. In addition, special attention has been paid to context during this time; if there is fluctuation, this perspective will minimize sweeping generalizations when changes occur.
This new Building Bridges series looks at community responses to COVID-19 using a prospicient lens: What short-term, community responses can become long-term, systemic solutions? Which immediate interventions can effectively and efficiently address the structural issues that lead to housing instability and homelessness? What “new thing” can evolve into “business as usual?” And what is needed to create healthy, stable communities permanently?
This week’s blog post is dedicated to how communities evaluate and report performance on the housing instability and homelessness services system in response to COVID-19.
CURRENT STATUS OF EVALUATION & PERFORMANCE
For the purposes of understanding, measuring, and reporting how a community is addressing housing instability and homelessness, it is sufficient to divide the housing and homelessness continuum into three buckets: entry to, active homelessness, and exit from. These sections also roughly correspond to the goal of ensuring that homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.
Measuring inflow into the homeless services system helps communities understand their need for housing assistance, as well as quantify the number of permanent housing units required to effectively address the problem. There are multiple ways to measure inflow into the homeless services system. Charlotte-Mecklenburg uses the by-name list referred to as the “One Number.” The One Number provides the most current and accurate snapshot of those experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness. The One Number is generated by HMIS and updated monthly. As of March 31, 2020, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is 3,683. This reflects an average increase of 158 individuals each month. Communities can break this number down further to look at new entries versus returns from permanent housing; sheltered versus unsheltered; and household type. Understanding entry into homelessness can also pinpoint solutions around prevention, directing resources upstream.
After an individual becomes homeless, the goal of homeless services is to help them exit as quickly as possible to permanent housing. Therefore, measures center around household length of stay and access to supports that can facilitate a speedier exit (such as increase in income). Charlotte-Mecklenburg tracks these measures across the entire homeless services system. According to the most recent data available, the average length of stay in emergency shelter is 105 days. This has increased year over year for each of the last four years. Communities can look at median versus average length of stay to determine if there are sectors of the sheltered population that have longer lengths of stay than others. Longer lengths of stay also generally indicate a lack of permanent housing solutions on the back end.
The goal of the homeless services system is to help individuals exit to permanent housing and sustain that housing. When most effective, this work should prevent, to the extent possible, returns to homelessness. Communities can measure this by tracking outflow (using One Number data) as well as monitoring exits to permanent housing and returns to homelessness. In addition, communities can and should track the number of permanent housing units available or under development. For the most recent data available, 70% (2,117 individuals) of those leaving the homeless services system exited to permanent housing. Of the households who exited in the last two years, only 24% (706 individuals) returned to homelessness. It is important for communities to compare the number of exits to both permanent housing over time and in comparison to inflow to accurately determine if homelessness is increasing or decreasing.
LONG-TERM VIEW ON EVALUATION & PERFORMANCE
Prior to the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, there were over 78,000 households experiencing cost-burden (paying more than 30% of their income to housing related expenses); over 7,400 calls to NC 2-1-1 for housing in the previous quarter; and 3,790 individuals actively homeless at the end of February. These individuals were experiencing housing instability and homelessness in multiple settings: doubled up with family and/or friends; staying in an emergency shelter or transitional housing facility; sleeping outside; or staying in a leased property and at risk of eviction. Because of COVID-19, communities have had to take extraordinary measures to ensure that each of these households can shelter-in-place. For example, communities have partnered with hotels to isolate and quarantine individuals from emergency shelters, as well as keep families who have historically stayed week to week in their rooms.
This does not necessarily mean that the number of people experiencing housing instability and homelessness has suddenly increased; rather, it underscores the connection between housing instability and homelessness, and provides a new opportunity for communities to enumerate housing need. Communities must quantify the need for housing assistance in order to plan for the right match of temporary (including emergency shelter) and permanent housing. It is critical that communities continue to enumerate the need over the next 3-, 6- and 12-months as the economic impact from COVID-19 unfolds.
The example of evaluation and performance highlighted in this blog post is another short-term solution that can easily become a long-term strategy to drive resource alignment; increase collaboration; and encourage accountability.
How can communities transition the number in need of shelter into the number of permanent housing units needed? Enumerating the magnitude helps advocacy efforts and communicates the urgency of the problem. This is certainly the case for the annual Point-in-Time Count, during which community volunteers get up early to conduct surveys; donate winter weather related items; and help raise awareness around the need for affordable housing. Quantifying also helps communities assign a cost to address housing instability and homelessness. An analysis completed by the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Congress “must invest up to $100 billion to keep the lowest-income households stably housed over the next year during and in the immediate wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
While the problems of housing instability and homelessness predate COVID-19, the link between the two has been highlighted as a result. With an influx of funding, communities have an opportunity to effectively address both.
Last week, guidance from the National League of Cities, National Low Income Housing Coalition, National Alliance to End Homelessness, and Mayors & CEOs for U.S. Housing Investments was released. This guidance is intended to help elected officials maximize federal resources made available under the CARES Act to reduce any housing instability and homelessness which results from measures to control the spread of COVID-19. A link to the guidance with recommended action steps is provided here.
Future posts in this series will continue to focus on this important shift from short-term intervention to long-term implementation. Check back here each week to find out more.
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.