KANKAKEE — “We’ve got almost two pages of notebook paper where my wife and I have written down phone numbers. I’ve highlighted in certain colors, so we know which landlords we’ve called, which ones we’ve talked to, where we’ve left messages.”
“And the one that you like, I got a call from them today.”
In the downtown Kankakee offices of The Salvation Army, Pam Curtis is house-searching. Curtis, 29, has been homeless for a little over a year, sleeping outside, in abandoned buildings and intermittently at The Salvation Army women’s shelter. Now she’s participating in the new rapid re-housing program, using The Salvation Army’s resources to find a permanent place to stay.
When the men’s shelter closed in July and the women’s shelter followed soon after, there was concern that people like Curtis would be left in the cold.
“Part of the challenge is that we need to get the message out,” said Salvation Army Maj. Nic Montgomery, who runs the Kankakee Salvation Army with his wife, Jodi. “We are not closed. We are open, and we’re serving.”
Now The Salvation Army wants to inform the public of its new plan, which involves a new approach to homelessness passed down from the federal government to social services organizations across the country.
Getting a feel for ‘housing first’
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development now recommends a “housing first” approach to homelessness. Housing first reverses the traditional approach to helping the homeless. Instead of moving someone through the system — first to a shelter, then maybe to supportive living before finally finding permanent housing — housing first prioritizes permanent housing over other interventions.
“There were studies done that show on-site housing is not the answer; and that’s why HUD has changed its focus, because putting someone in shelter for 30, 60, 90 days, we didn’t do anything,” said Jodi Montgomery. “We just let someone stay there and then told them to go be homeless somewhere else.”
Accordingly, HUD has moved away from shelter programs. The Salvation Army practices rapid re-housing, a subset of housing first that, according to HUD, “connects families and individuals experiencing homelessness to permanent housing through a tailored package of assistance that may include the use of time-limited financial assistance and targeted supportive services.”
Research backs up the new approach. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, between 75 and 91 percent of households that go through a rapid re-housing program remain housed a year later. A study of 6,000 rapidly re-housed people in Michigan showed that two years after receiving assistance, only 6.5 percent of people returned to homelessness, the majority of which were single men and not families.
That’s why Curtis, her wife of seven years, and their daughter are on the hunt for a new place. They’ve partnered with Natasha Elliott, director of social ministries, who is currently the only caseworker for rapid re-housing.
“Even though the shelter is closed, they’re indirectly providing shelter for everybody,” said Curtis. “Even though they don’t have the shelter upstairs, at the same time the people who were upstairs and are now out there, they’re doing their best to get us off the streets. Unfortunately they had to send us back out there. Now they’re trying to get everything wrapped up and together so (Elliott) can turn around and get everyone back she already helped.”
When someone calls The Salvation Army for assistance, they’re evaluated for vulnerability. Those who are determined to be “literally homeless” (sleeping in places not designed for human habitation) are given a shelter-voucher, which they use to stay in a local motel during the housing search process. The goal is to transition people out of the motels in a timely fashion, while helping them with the housing search and connecting them with services like employment assistance and mental health counseling.
No shortage of need
“We try to figure out a few things,” Elliott said of the housing search. “First, the size of the unit that they want, if the household has a lot of income or only a little income, what’s a good rent amount for the family. Then on my own I look for different landlords who are willing to work with us, and they also look for landlords.”
Charitable organizations, social service providers, and local schools and hospitals coordinate through the local Continuum of Care, a group that meets monthly with the goal of reducing homelessness and supporting vulnerable community members. The move toward a housing-first model has been a challenge for the group.
“It’s somewhat imposed upon us. I don’t know that anybody decided this is how we wanted to run our programs,” said Sarah Neil, chairperson of the COC and director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Joliet. “It’s definitely a shift in funding priorities. A lot of times programs have to follow the funding and go where the money is.”
Funding has been a concern for The Salvation Army specifically. United Way of Kankakee, which had been funding a large percentage of shelter operations, ended that support in December after the shelters closed.