United Way
of Massachusetts Bay
and Merrimack Valley

January 24, 2017

There’s an app for that? 4 innovative ways to find homes for the homeless

Why do we need innovation to solve a problem that sounds so simple?

Homelessness in Massachusetts has risen 92% since 2007. Ending homelessness for 3,700 families and over 1,200 chronically homeless individuals requires new strategies and new thinking. It is a complex issue, one that requires a focus on housing, jobs and financial coaching, along with making sure the children in homeless families get quality early education and support in school. It also requires a mix of prevention, quick intervention and innovation.

Here are four approaches to helping individuals and families that represent new ways of addressing homelessness in our region.

Pay for Success

This is a new way to help finance, or pay for, scaling a program that has a proven track record. The private investor underwrites the cost of the program expansion and assumes the risk for the taxpayers; the investors are repaid only if the program works. Read more about the Pay for Success initiative in Massachusetts, which is working to reduce chronic individual homelessness. Since June, 2015 this initiative has placed over 410 individuals in safe, supportive housing.

there’s an app for that?

The Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership is developing an app to help connect families to housing assistance and other resources. The app will assess families’ eligibility for programs and connect them to affordable housing resources, including available rental subsidies, local and regional contacts and non-financial solutions. MBHP anticipates that the app will streamline processes for finding resources and will secure help for more families, more quickly.

Eviction prevention

It costs the Boston Housing Authority much more to evict a tenant (about $10,000) than to work with them to stabilize their finances and pay back the rent they owe (about $2,000 on average). And yet, 85% of evictions by the Boston Housing Authority last year were for non-payment of rent.  Seems like there should be an obvious solution here, right?

Through funding provided by United Way’s recent IF Challenge with Boston College School of Social Work, the local nonprofit HomeStart is developing ways to replicate a successful eviction prevention partnership in other cities and with private landlords. Under this model, HomeStart pays for half of the tenant’s back rent and provides supportive services like financial coaching and job skills development to get them back on their feet. The BHA then agrees to halt the eviction process, and over the course of the year, the tenant pays back the other half of the rent owed. From 2010-2013 this partnership preserved tenancy for 554 residents, with 97% of them still in housing after one year.

Help the whole family

Helping families affected by homelessness means helping both the parents and children. In Lynn, for example, United Way partnered with the Lynn Family Success Center, Lynn Public Schools and the Siemer Foundation to provide over 150 families that are homeless or in unstable housing with intensive support. Case managers work with the schools to identify homeless students, connect their families to financial opportunity services such as housing assistance, job training and financial coaching and provide students with tutoring and out-of-school time services. With more than 19,500 homeless students in Massachusetts, this is program that demands to be scaled.

These programs and strategies represent the kind of “common sense innovation” needed to bring an end to homelessness. Our region is home to world-class colleges and universities, health care institutions, businesses and non-profits. By harnessing our untapped innovation and working with state and municipal leaders, we are well-positioned to bring about cutting-edge change that lasts.