What’s the Big Idea? FamilyAid Boston Wins Big for Kids Facing Homelessness

June is innovation month here at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. So we’re talking with the winners our first-ever Venture Fund competition, held in collaboration with Aetna.  We’ll be discussing their innovative solutions for the communities we serve. We spoke with Larry Seamans, President, FamilyAid Boston, a United Way of Mass Bay Strategic Partner agency, who shared FamilyAid’s resourceful plan to help families and their kids facing homelessness – now and for future generations.

Larry, what social challenge did you want to solve through innovation?

Boston is now the city with the third highest number of homeless family members in the country. There are 3,500 – 4,000 Boston Public School students who are homeless – many of them living in shelters (shelter average stay is about a year, costing nearly $40,000 per family). Plus, there are 900 more children who are in danger of becoming homeless.

Families are often just a paycheck away from homelessness. And at the point of eviction, the family is already in free-fall, the children already experiencing the negative  traumatic impacts of losing their home.

So how could we engage with families earlier, before they actually hit that eviction process?

Wow, those statistics are sobering. How does your idea answer that question –  and embrace the spirit of innovation?

We often don’t know who those families are at that critical tipping point into homelessness. There’s a big data and communications gap between services organizations serving kids facing homelessness and the schools those children attend.

So with this Venture Fund grant, FamilyAid Boston and Boston Public Schools are developing an Early Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (EHIP) pilot program to prevent eviction among families. It will build out data systems, cement deeper collaboration, and link the resources between FamilyAid Boston and its partners with the knowledge of the Boston Public Schools. Our solution is building this bridge.

Why does your idea matter?

With this program, we can step in to be supportive for the families BEFORE they fall into the eviction process—and become homeless. Our idea can  preserve families’ housing, re-establish stability, and improve children’s educational outcomes.

How are teachers part of the equation?

Teachers are often the early warning systems to homelessness.  They can build amazing rapport with their students. We have a former Boston Public School teacher on our staff who mentioned she could tell when a family was living on the edge, but she wasn’t always equipped to know what to do next. Our idea is that “next.”

How does United Way’s Venture Fund relate to your mission?

United Way’s Venture Fund has allowed us to reach an audience of the population who are precariously housed. The Venture Fund ties directly to our mission of empowering parents and caregivers who are facing homelessness to sustain their housing – building strong foundations for their kids’ futures.

So how is your solution different—or better?

This is the first time this Venture Fund solution is being attempted between a school system and a homeless resource system. There’s a precedent of data sharing for homeless adults; so if we can do it for them, we should be able to apply this innovation for the youngest and most vulnerable of our citizens.

How does your relationship with United Way help this idea?

One of the benefits of having United Way as a partner is the ability to take best practices and expand them to other communities outside the city of Boston—thanks to the reach of the United Way.  Our outlook is that based on our learnings, challenges, successes, this could be a replicable model in other school districts faced with the same challenge of precariously-housed families.

With this Venture Fund solution, how do you see the future looking for families facing homelessness?

Our vision is that FamilyAid Boston will be able to intervene sooner in the eviction process, reducing the impact on children. Long term, we’d love to see an outcome where kids’ social and emotional development—and attendance in schools—improves dramatically. We want to support the family before they begin a very traumatic process. Because every kid deserves a place to call home.

Thanks so much for your time, Larry. We’re excited to see your idea changing lives for kids and their families in our community.