From Housing First to Lasting Change

On Christmas Eve of 2001, after depleting their savings and being evicted from their home, Diane Sullivan, her husband and four young children found themselves seeking out emergency shelter. With the state’s system stretched beyond capacity, they were placed in two small rooms at a motel that was also providing temporary emergency housing to more than a dozen other families. Her story remains heart-wrenching no matter how many times she tells it: how her eldest child attended three different schools in a year, or how with no access to a kitchen, they struggled to give their children proper meals. All the little details that make family homelessness so touching and tragic come alive through Diane’s experience.

“We transformed one of the bathrooms into a makeshift kitchen with a Styrofoam cooler in the tub,” she recalled. “I was constantly running back and forth to the hotel’s ice machine to ensure that the little bit of food we could keep, we kept safely. Despite our creative efforts, our children would soon become malnourished.”

Back then, families could spend up to 24 months in shelters before they could save enough money to move. This system also cost the Commonwealth up to $3,000 per month for a family like Diane’s.

Thankfully, things have improved in the decade that followed. Due in great part to the Housing First service delivery model and the three-year pilot initiative funded by the Real Estate and Building Industry’s Leadership Breakfast that validated its effectiveness; more families are now moved into permanent housing more quickly. This practice greatly reduces the negative impact of homelessness on children, while enabling their parents to enroll in job training and other supports that lead to lasting financial stability.

“The three year pilot that the Real Estate Industry funded proved that people fared much better under Housing First than with shelter stays,” says Kory Eng, who heads up United Way’s housing and financial stability impact area. “They had much longer periods of stability post-placement. After three years, 77% of the 1,200 that we originally helped were still stable and we had saved taxpayers $3.6 million in shelter costs.” The research gathered by the three year pilot continues to frame United Way’s work in this area by defining the measures of success provided to funded agencies.

“Now, instead of the 14 original agencies that we funded in the pilot, we have a portfolio of 40 best-in class partners across our footprint that are utilizing the practices and interventions that are proven to be most effective. That original 1,200 impacted has grown four times to 5,000,” says Eng. “I’m not saying that we changed the organizations that we fund single-handedly, but we really pushed them, gave them the capacity, and treated Housing First as a threshold for United Way partnership and operating support.” Last year, United Way exceeded its targets in this area with 5,086 people obtaining affordable housing and 13, 291 others avoiding eviction.

The proof of concept and results that the pilot provided were also a major influencer at the state policy level. When Massachusetts adopted Housing First through its Home Base program, more than 300 organizations adopted the philosophy as a service delivery model, further amplifying the impact and number of people helped by Housing First.

United Way’s ability to test methodologies, champion best practices through funding, and bring the right people together has made it a key convener and thought leader, particularly in the area of public/private partnerships. “One thing that everyone can agree on, particularly in today’s economic climate, is getting a high return on investment,” says Jeff Hayward, United Way’s Chief of External Affairs. Hayward is heading United Way’s effort to be among the first in the nation to pursue “Pay for Success” social innovation financing. The White House Office of Management and Budget calls this model “an innovative way of partnering with philanthropic and private sector investors to create incentives for service providers to deliver better outcomes at lower cost—producing the highest return on taxpayer investments.”

United Way remains at the vanguard of those shaping future thinking and policy around housing and homelessness. As a recent co-sponsor with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation and the Aileen Getty Foundation of a “Next Practices” roundtable at Harvard University, United Way joined 150 of the most recognized thought leaders and innovative service providers. The event, convened by the American Roundtable to Abolish Homelessness (ART), the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance and the Phillips Brooks House Association of Harvard University (PBHA) brought together organizations operating at the increasingly critical juncture of homelessness and health care. “This group is already looking beyond Housing First, says United Way’s Jeff Hayward. “We’re already involved in ‘what’s next?’ and we don’t even know what ‘what’s next’ is.”

Years after that heart-wrenching Christmas Eve and her family’s experience, Diane Sullivan has made helping homeless families her life’s work. She has shared her own family’s story with countless audiences, making an often complex social issue personal, human and unforgettably compelling. Diane worked for many years as an eviction prevention specialist before becoming the policy advocate for Homes for Families, a United Way-funded Housing First agency.

Diane’s family’s story is similar to thousands touched by Housing First and the pilot initiative that the Real Estate and Building Industry helped make possible. “For these families…for all families…a stable home is the foundation for success in school, work, and life,” says United Way’s Kory Eng. “The totality of our work in school readiness, reading proficiency, graduation and financial stability depends on it. So much begins at home. That’s why preventing and ending homelessness will continue to be a focus.”