EMILY NONKO JANUARY 5, 2021
The Fresno Madera Continuum of Care was founded over 20 years ago to help coordinate homeless services in California’s Fresno and Madera counties. For years, the collaborative focused on serving individuals who had already become homeless. About two years ago, the focus shifted to include “inflow,” or homelessness prevention.
“We were focused as a continuum for those experiencing homelessness,” says Laura Moreno, the chair of Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, “but as someone pointed out a couple years ago, if all we’re doing is catching people as they fall off the cliff, we’re never going to stop people before they get to the edge and prevent them from falling.”
The coalition is now part of Built for Zero, a campaign by the nonprofit Community Solutions to end homelessness, at least for certain populations. (Last year, Next City reported on the Built for Zero campaign in Rockford, Illinois, where officials there have pledged to end homelessness for everyone.) In this work Community Solutions found communities cannot sustainably end homelessness without preventing people from experiencing it in the first place — which requires sectors outside the homelessness response system to take responsibility for stabilizing people most at risk.
Analysis has shown this “diversion” strategy reduces the number of people becoming homeless, demand for shelter beds, and the size of program wait lists. People who receive help before becoming homeless also have a lower rate of returning to the system to access shelter.
In 2018, Fresno and Madera counties became part of a Built for Zero pilot that specifically addressed how veterans in the area go from being stably housed to no longer having housing. Three other locales — Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County, Michigan; Detroit, Michigan; and a community that wished to remain anonymous — participated. In collaboration with Urban Institute, Built for Zero recently released a report with findings from the pilot that identify new strategies to reduce the number of veterans who become homeless alongside challenges within these “unfamiliar testing grounds,” as the report put it, including limited resources and structural barriers to collaborate across systems.
“We believe there are enough resources available to veterans through the VA that really could support an end to homelessness,” explains Andi Broffman, Community Solutions’ portfolio manager for catalytic projects. “We wanted to show that it’s systems-level work that needs to be done, digging into the elements of the system that exist now and identifying areas for improvement.”
The pilot kicked off with Built for Zero asking each community to assemble a diverse cohort of 20 veterans newly experiencing homelessness. Built for Zero staff conducted interviews with each participant, covering issues like childhood trauma, their history of housing and homelessness, social supports they received and what might have helped prevent homelessness. “A deliberate piece of this pilot was that communities wanted to center the voices of people who moved on these pathways from housing stability into homelessness,” says Broffman.
Those interviews were crucial in developing community-specific “improvement project playbooks” that included a profile of how veterans become homeless and specific strategies each local team could test within its jurisdiction.
In Fresno, as well as larger Fresno and Madera counties, the vast majority of veterans reported that a breakdown of a family or romantic relationship led to their episode of homelessness. 70 percent had a job in a physically demanding or highly transient industry, but age or medical conditions had prevented them from working. Almost half had been incarcerated and cited a lack of employment opportunities for people with criminal records. For female vets, many experienced domestic violence or military sexual trauma.
There were a few other findings that stuck out to the Fresno team. For one, most interviewed veterans reported they were unaware of available resources, particularly during the transition from military to civilian life. Another — that veterans in VA-funded substance-use disorder programs were exiting to homelessness — directly translated into a strategy the team acted on.
Built for Zero recommended that city and county homeless providers connect with local substance use disorder treatment programs to make contingency plans for veterans who may be unstably or marginally housed. In response, the supervisor from the VA-funded Health Care for Homeless Veterans program, which helps veterans transition from living on the street or in institutions into stable housing situations, met directly with staff members from the substance use disorder program to discuss the issue and coordinate housing for veterans in the program.
The Fresno team then identified 13 veterans who needed housing and held spots for them at an emergency shelter. As they left the substance use disorder program, they had a place to stay and could more easily coordinate permanent housing options. Through the pilot, the team secured permanent housing for about 80 percent of the originally identified veterans.
This initial work focused on getting veterans already in shelters into permanent housing. Still Fresno developed a clear sense of how some veterans become homeless — not to mention evidence that this response reduced veteran homelessness. “It was incredible to see the local actors working on homeless response for veterans identify this partnership with the substance abuse program and then build this relationship with an upstream partner,” says Broffman.
“This is the work we think is so critical for inflow,” she added. “That foundational relationship they built, and the successes of that relationship, it really feels like the basis for a relationship you can start to engage that substance abuse program to move even further upstream.” Having the data and evidence to show measurable success can also become a tool for building support and earning buy-in for prevention-focused initiatives.
The report identified short-term and deeper challenges in the shift towards preventing. Homeless assistance systems, in general, are ill-equipped to focus upstream. (As the report points out, “Activities to reduce inflow primarily operate outside the system that people know; in contrast, outflow work operates within the system and is therefore more easily understood and controlled.”) Local governments and nonprofits in all four pilot locations had limited capacity and inadequate funding to tackle systems-level thinking and solutions.
Still, the findings impacted both Built for Zero and the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care as far as serving people before they ever become homeless. “We at Community Solutions have taken what we’ve learned through this work and built a strategy for the next couple of years to support communities to dig into more inflow work,” Broffman says.
The pilot set the table for the next iteration of the work, determining what partners are needed to support homeless service, the funding and resources required, and how to build upon strategies that showed early signs of success. “Built for Zero is hoping some of the communities in the pilot might be able to build the foundational work they’ve done to continue working on inflow in particular,” adds Broffman.
At the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care, Moreno will integrate homelessness prevention into an assessment for receiving funding from the state of California. “Funding sources are sometimes very specific … you can’t fund diversion,” she notes. “We want to make sure we’re funding an entire system so we can address the inflow, outreach, shelters, rapid rehousing.” Moreno adds that preventing homelessness from the get-go doesn’t necessarily require major funding: “We’ve found the work requires a lot less dollars than we originally anticipated.”
“Now that we’ve come to diversion, I don’t see us as ever really backing out of diversion,” she concludes. “If there’s some way we can prevent you from entering the system and prevent the trauma from entering it, then we need to address it.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable.