A new approach to eliminating family homelessness in NC

Chaplain Lynn Holloway leaves a flier at a homeless camp in Durham.
Chaplain Lynn Holloway leaves a flier at a homeless camp in Durham. tlong@newsobserver.com

As the Triangle has grown to become a staple of various “top 10” lists with high median incomes, great universities and booming growth, this is a wonderful time to stop and be thankful for our many blessings.

Sadly, the growth of the Triangle region obscures a darker truth: Many of the region’s residents struggle to make ends meet, and local agencies are straining to meet the demand for needs as basic as food, clothing and shelter. Over 10,000 households in Durham pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing costs and are very much “at risk” of homelessness. Many more live paycheck-to-paycheck on the edge of poverty. For many families in the Triangle, there is no such thing as “home for the holidays.”

In many parts of the Triangle, the high demand for family shelter and a lack of affordable housing has created a new normal where families wait, “doubled up” with friends and family, for openings at family shelters. Emergency financial assistance is in short supply, and eligibility criteria are stringent.

Families fortunate to move from a shelter to permanent housing receive limited support, despite a growing body of research that shows “aftercare” services can greatly reduce returns to homelessness. It would be easy to label these “other people’s problems” and turn the page, but what would you do if it were your family in this situation?

The people we see walk through our door are mothers, fathers, young children, veterans and domestic violence survivors. They come to us as a last resort with nowhere else to go.

Many agencies address needs without acknowledging that some wicked problems like homelessness are beyond the capacity of any one entity to solve. We have to look outside our own walls and coordinate our actions if we ever hope to move the needle on poverty in our community. “Business as usual” doesn’t cut it anymore.

That’s why a small group of nonprofits in Durham is working to improve the system of care for families in the crisis of homelessness. This systems-level approach is based on data, research and established best practices for families and children.

Durham’s Collaborative to End Family Homelessness includes Genesis Home, Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network, Urban Ministries of Durham, Housing for New Hope and Durham’s Partnership for Children. Our agencies have been working for three years to deliver better results and a better experience for families in need.

Urban Ministries of Durham has launched a program to help families find safe, stable housing without entering the shelter system. Genesis Home and Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network are merging to create Families Moving Forward, which will provide emergency shelter for up to 100 families per year and “aftercare” case management for up to one year to promote family self-sufficiency.

Durham’s Partnership for Children is working with family shelter providers to screen every child aged 0-5 to identify developmental needs and ensure that children enter kindergarten ready for school. Housing for New Hope will use federal resources formerly allocated to Genesis Home to expand its family rapid rehousing program that provides time-limited rent and utility support as well as case management to ensure a successful transition to independence.

Funding from the United Way of the Greater Triangle is supporting the collaborative and each of these interventions. Together, we have seen firsthand that working smarter can have more of an effect than simply working harder as a stand-alone agency. At Genesis Home our partnerships have helped cut our average length of stay for families from nine months to almost four months from shelter entry to each successful exit into permanent housing.

These agencies have changed their approach. Now, we hope the community will do the same. Homelessness is not an individual or family issue. It is a community issue – and your support matters.

Whether it’s volunteering to tutor young people at Genesis Home and Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network, serving meals at Urban Ministries, volunteering as a board member or making a monthly gift to an agency you hold dear, your involvement is changing lives for the better.

We reflect our values in the way we live each day, not just during the holiday season. Please make ending family homelessness in our community a year-round cause. As you sit down with friends and loved ones to celebrate the season, remember that a warm home and a full stomach are gifts we should not ever take for granted. Together, we can do better.

Ryan J. Fehrman is executive director of Genesis Home.