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Heading Home – An Innovative Approach from Homelessness to Self Sufficiency

Posted by Devin Cole  May 16, 2012 11:56 AM

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Is it possible to significantly decrease the number of homeless individuals and families?

According to Heading Home, a Greater Boston non-profit organization, it is.

Heading Home has taken an innovative approach to decreasing the number of homeless people through its shelter and transitional housing programs, which create a supported bridge toward the end goal of providing permanent housing. Its model begins with a home and offers critical services such as life skills, education, financial literacy, and job training. The model has proven to be very effective. In fact, 91 percent of the people housed through its program have remained housed.

Keiley Up & Out 035.jpgAccording to Heading Home’s Executive Director, Tom Lorello, on any given night in Greater Boston more than 7,000 people are homeless, including 3,000 children. On the family side, Heading Home sees that most situations involve a young single mother at the average age of 26 years old with 1 to 3 children. Almost half of the kids are under 6 years old and about the other half are under 10 years old. On the individual side, it is generally the disabled population with problems such as mental illness or drug use.

Board member, David Weinberg, said “Many people don’t realize that homeless individuals and families are just like everyone else and are not all street people. In many cases, the cause of homelessness is a run of bad luck or bad choices, and those that end up homeless just need assistance to get back on their feet and stay there.”

In 2001, Heading Home decided to look at an old problem differently. The organization changed its focus from emergency shelters to housing first and became a model for Greater Boston. At the forefront of this new idea was to give the homeless the opportunity to get housing first, provide support, and then let them prove to be good citizens. It became very clear to Heading Home that housing is the foundation for people to turn their lives around.

Former board member, Phill Gross, Managing Director of Adage Capital Management, said “housing first gives people mindshare, and that enables them to focus on fixing the problems they have.” If people are on the street, they are in survival mode, making it very difficult to focus on getting treatment and turn one’s life around. Believe it or not, it costs society a lot less to put homeless people in housing with support than for them to be homeless, because homeless people frequently end up in Emergency Rooms or hospitalized when on the streets.

The current public welfare system presents part of the challenge because of the loss of services for those who make above a certain amount of money. If someone makes $15 per hour, certain services such as childcare will be taken away, and it is difficult to afford childcare at that amount of pay. To provide an incentive for people to get off the public welfare system while housed, Heading Home designed a program to reward families that work toward self sufficiency with cash and housing. Its participants are given a monetary account that can be used for necessities such as purchasing a reliable car to get to work, a computer, or a down payment on a home.

Instead of lifetime public housing, program participants receive an 8-year voucher. During years 3 through 8, the financial assistance decreases. At year 5, participants receive education on home ownership. After 8 years, the payout from the escrow on their account can be used for a down payment on a home. Currently 36 out of 40 parents working 6 months or more have assets and an account open.

To assist with the transition into housing, Heading Home’s Up and Out Council furnishes and decorates the housing and provides children with items such as toys. That added touch is often an overwhelming relief for the families that are housed, as they don’t have to worry about things like not being able to afford curtains to put in the windows.

Many families live day-to-day and week-to-week. For example, $20 is a lot of money to save for a family living on low income, and many of them are not able to think of long-term financial goals. To address those challenges, Heading Home created a financial literacy program along with a savings match incentive. As an added incentive, Heading Home provides access to education and created a Family Scholarship Program for college tuition.

Heading Home also provides job training for individuals - a key piece to supporting people working to obtain self sufficiency. The training program focuses on the needs of today’s job market and attempts to connect program participants with jobs that come with full benefits and potential for future career movement.

Heading Home is not alone in facing the challenge to decrease homelessness, but they need as much support as they can get. The organization has over 400 volunteers and partners with many other organizations such as The Boston Foundation, Citizens Bank, The Highland Street Foundation, Crittenton Women’s Union, the Cambridge Housing Authority, and Green Mountain Coffee.

Board member, Donna Quirk, said “It is exciting to be part of Heading Home and its mission to end homelessness in Greater Boston. For the past 6 years, Heading Home has served more than 2,000 people annually, and the fact that we have a 91 percent retention rate in our permanent housing programs is a benchmark that shows the effectiveness of our program. Recently, over 700 people joined Heading Home at The State Room for a spectacular evening to support and celebrate Heading Home's work.”

Heading Home has made great progress. Initially the organization provided 20 units of housing and now provides over 250 units of housing. They plan to create an additional 100 new units and develop 3 new housing properties by 2016. With more financial support, Heading Home and other non-profit organizations like them can continue to make a difference and propel homeless individuals and families to self sufficiency. Heading Home provides numerous opportunities to help and get involved, including for students and employees.

Ellen Keiley is President of the MBA Women International Boston Chapter Board of Directors (formerly the National Association of Women MBAs), serves as a Vice Chair of the City Year Women’s Leadership and Legal Community Breakfasts, and is a Boston World Partnerships Connector. She can be contacted at ellenmkeiley@gmail.com

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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