Planning and investment efforts related to homelessness have, for well over a decade, primarily focused on the downstream components of the homeless services system. These components seek to reduce homelessness by increasing access to and availability of, permanent housing (including subsidized and non-subsidized). This is true of communities across the United States, and of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, data in Charlotte-Mecklenburg indicated that almost 30,000 households face a formal eviction each year. More than 78,000 renter households experienced housing cost burden, which means they are spending more than 30% of their income on housing-related costs. These numbers have increased, and will likely worsen, as a result of the long-term economic fallout from the response to COVID-19. In reacting to the pandemic, communities have started to develop strategic housing and homelessness plans that integrate public health promotion with economic recovery.
Homelessness prevention is the real key to both protecting the community and ensuring long-term housing stability. In fact, federal COVID-19 assistance has targeted prevention activities to ensure that households can stay safely in their homes during the pandemic. While prevention assistance may have been missing from prior community housing strategies and previous multi-year plans, it has now emerged as an incredibly critical component.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s focus on prevention assistance (as a system) started long before the COVID-19 pandemic. This focus has only sharpened since the pandemic began impacting households in our community. This week’s blog illustrates the genesis and evolution of a prevention assistance system in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and what this early work means for the community.
DEFINING PREVENTION ASSISTANCE
What, after all, is meant by “prevention?” It may be simpler to say what prevention is not: prevention assistance is not just one type of assistance. It is, instead, a category (or continuum) of housing assistance that targets households facing near-term housing instability but who have not yet lost their housing.
The continuum of prevention assistance includes three tiers: community-wide interventions aimed at changing the systems and structures that perpetuate housing instability; cross-sector collaboration and coordination to reduce the prevalence of homelessness; and targeted interventions, including financial and legal assistance, to help households maintain their housing.
So, what qualifies as prevention assistance? Any of the following could be considered prevention assistance: creating policies that ensure tenants have legal representation in civil proceedings; adopting a racial equity lens to approach the delivery of housing and homelessness services; delivering education on tenant rights and the eviction process; mandating transition or “discharge” planning to ensure households leaving a formal program have connection to mainstream resources; linking childcare subsidies with housing programs; providing direct financial assistance for rent, utilities and other debt to maintain housing; appointing legal representation to prevent individual evictions; administering supportive services to help keep housing; and supplying critical home repair and remediation to ensure housing is both safe and sustainable. Prevention assistance is targeted upstream within the Housing & Homelessness Ecosystem. However, prevention can be an effective intervention at both ends of the housing continuum: targeting households facing housing instability so that they do not lose their housing; as well as homeless households who regain housing so that they can sustain it.
THE STORY OF PREVENTION ASSISTANCE IN CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG
There are multiple prevention assistance providers (and funders) in Charlotte-Mecklenburg; many of these organizations and funding streams have existed for years. What has been missing is a unified strategy for, and a concerted effort to align the whole array of prevention resources to, addressing the needs of the populations at risk of experiencing homelessness.
In 2016, Matthew Desmond published the book, Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City. This book, which chronicles the lives of 8 families struggling to pay their rent during the 2008 financial crisis, helped propel the issue of evictions into the national consciousness, and raised awareness of housing instability. Prevention assistance was promoted as an anchor solution; subsequently, communities across the United States began to increase investment in prevention and enact policies to ensure legal representation for tenants.
During 2017 and 2018, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services released a three-part report series focused on evictions using local data. The initial report covered an overview of the formal eviction process; the second mapped formal eviction filings and judgments by neighborhood across the county; and the third report took a deeper dive into a one-month snapshot of formal eviction filings in Mecklenburg County. This report series marked the first time a local report covered evictions (and the topic of homelessness prevention) in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
In addition, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services partnered with the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute to organize a public lecture by Matthew Desmond in September 2017. The event was free to attend, and was also streamed to a satellite location to maximize potential attendance. Prior to Desmond’s lecture, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services, in partnership with multiple community groups, initiated a community book club to help raise awareness about evictions; engage all levels of stakeholders with issues raised in Desmond’s book; and prepare to receive and use the information that would be released in the local report series. With support from The Foundation for the Carolinas, over 40 book clubs launched around Mecklenburg County. Each book club member received a free book, and a toolkit that combined book-generated discussion questions with local data and context; and ways to get involved to support the work in the community. These book clubs were conducted by public and private entities; schools and university groups; faith communities; businesses; and neighborhoods. One consisted of a group of individuals with lived experience who were called by Desmond while conducting one of their meetings.
This intentional community effort increased awareness about the issues of housing instability and the need to explore solutions. The attention also helped increase local resource allocations. In FY19, Mecklenburg County initiated funding specifically for eviction prevention, targeting legal assistance to residents facing eviction; this was done by allocating over $300,000 to Legal Aid of North Carolina. In FY20, this funding was increased by $560,000, expanding the overall investment in legal assistance for evictions to over $800,000 across two providers. In addition, Mecklenburg County allotted $1M to Habitat for Humanity of the Charlotte Region to provide critical home repair.
Although investment in prevention assistance had increased significantly, and there were multiple organizations providing a range of prevention activities, there was still not an aligned or coordinated prevention-assistance system. Recognizing this gap, in 2018 Mecklenburg County staff submitted a Continuum of Care (CoC) planning grant application to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). The grant funding was to be purposed for developing a prevention assistance system. A comprehensive strategy was needed, not just to inform investments in prevention assistance; but to ultimately strengthen and expand prevention strategies in alignment with other components of the housing and homelessness ecosystem. The grant was fully funded and allocated to Mecklenburg County on behalf of the CoC in early 2020.
Between submitting the grant and receiving the funding, Mecklenburg County Community Support Services released a report entitled, Launch Upstream: Homelessness Prevention in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The report provided the community with its first overview of the entire prevention assistance system, including the landscape of providers and dedicated funding streams in the community. As a precursor to the work of the planning grant, the report defined and described a framework for organizing prevention assistance as a system.
The CoC planning grant work, referred to as “Evaluate Upstream: Optimizing the Homelessness Prevention Assistance System in Charlotte-Mecklenburg,” was launched in May 2020 and will continue through April 2021. “Evaluate Upstream” is a homelessness prevention system change effort intended to address the structural factors that impact access to, and sustainability of, housing. The desired outcome of “Evaluate Upstream” is a comprehensive homelessness prevention assistance system for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, grounded in shared accountability.
“Evaluate Upstream” is entering its final phase: taking ideas produced by a multi-tiered, cross-sector group of stakeholders; and combining them with input from previous phases, and critical research, into a coherent, cohesive blueprint for implementing a prevention assistance system. The final product also includes an evaluation methodology, with corresponding metrics, to ensure ongoing measurement and monitoring of progress toward preventing homelessness. “Evaluate Upstream” may be closing with a blueprint and evaluation methodology, but the hard work of preventing homelessness through this comprehensive system will just be starting.
In comparison with other shelter and re-housing interventions, prevention assistance can be a much more cost-effective intervention. In addition, prevention reduces inflow into homelessness; this means that other elements of the ecosystem can do what they are best positioned to do: temporarily shelter any households facing a housing crisis; and quickly re-house them into permanent housing.
If combined with other demand-side solutions like increasing household income; expanding workforce development efforts; and strengthening safety net supports, prevention assistance can reduce other public costs while also simultaneously bolstering the local economy.
Finally, prevention assistance reduces all the impacts on households facing housing instability. An eviction filing, even if there was never an actual eviction, can keep a family from being approved for an apartment in the future. There are costs to move; store possessions; or even replace items left behind. The loss of housing (and any time spent experiencing homelessness) has negative repercussions across multiple areas, for children and adults. The immediate negative impact on children also has long-term implications, including poor school attendance and academic outcomes. This is how the cycle starts, and how it continues generation after generation.
Because of Mecklenburg County’s three-year head start in developing a prevention assistance system, the community is well situated to develop a comprehensive and sustainable response to the incoming tsunami of households facing housing instability and homelessness due to COVID-19. During a pandemic, prevention is seen as key to both protecting the community’s health and ensuring individual housing stability.
Housing strategies solely focused on a crisis response will only ever operate in crisis mode. Worse, in a crisis, other routine operations are jeopardized, and it is easy to feel a loss of control of a given situation. With the waves breaking over the hull of our ship, and damage below the waterline, it is easy to lose steerage.
Prevention assistance, if optimized as a systemic intervention within the housing ecosystem, can enable communities to both end and prevent homelessness. It can allow other parts of the ecosystem to get out of crisis response.
Prevention assistance, if applied as broadly as practical, has the potential to impact multiple generations. It allows damage control to take place in the hull, where are all of the structural issues are.
Prevention assistance, if funded to scale and coordinated strategically, can recalibrate the rest of the housing continuum. It serves to restore power to our helm.
Prevention assistance, if allowed, could be the one thing that rights the ship.
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.