Health care and affordable housing have been the greatest challenges to the City of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County when they adopted the 10 Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in 2006. The United Way of Forsyth County has been leading the charge and have seen a significant reduction from 200 shelter beds occupied by chronic homeless residents to only 15 today. How has this achievement been made possible?
Knowing the history of homelessness in our area and the progression of how services were offered to this population is essential in understanding this achievement. In the mid to early 1980s, mental health facilities in the state began closing and many of the occupants were released without direction of care. Local shelters were built to house this population in our community on an emergency basis, and most housing shelters were built by faith-based organizations. Social services were offered to these individuals while they were housed in the shelters, but ceased when they left to join the mainstream population. “Skills learned and needed to navigate the homeless shelter environment are different from the skills and knowledge needed to live productively in independent housing,” states Andrea Kurtz, United Way Senior Director, Housing Strategies & Director, Housing Matters.
This support strategy of helping the homeless while in emergency shelter, but not extending support beyond the emergency shelter status, resulted in many returning on a recurring basis, creating chronic homelessness.
Since 2006, over five hundred supportive housing units have been built in the county for the purpose of transitioning chronic homeless residents into successful independent members of the community. The transition to these units is coupled with social services and case management oversight, so independent living skills can be acquired. The United Way of Forsyth County has worked with many local partner agencies in providing these transitional services, including the Housing Authority, the Veterans Administration, Samaritan Ministries, and Crisis Control, among others.
In 2010 the United Way began The Forsyth Rapid Rehousing Collaborative, a program to transition people experiencing homelessness from shelters into mainstream housing units with short term rental assistance combined with social services support. This program has achieved a 90% rate of continued housing for individuals for up to 2 years. An additional change to the homeless system has been coordinated assessment, so no matter which door people enter homeless services from, they are given a common assessment to prioritize individuals chosen for the various supportive housing programs. The assessment looks primarily at health risk and vulnerability. The goal of this common assessment is to move those hardest to serve into successful housing, thus reducing their chronic homelessness.
The main challenges for the chronically homeless are mental disability, low income that does not allow for housing costs, lack of stable income due to housing instability, and lack of health care.
“Loss of, or lack of, permanent housing should not create a personal identity of being homeless,” states Andrea Kurtz. “People are so much more than their disability or their housing crisis. Homelessness does not truly define them as individual people.” By applying what the United Way calls a Housing First Approach, providing affordable housing coupled with social services support, they are greatly reducing chronic homelessness.
By changing how the support systems serve the homeless, implementing the Housing First Approach has resulted in some very good news for our community. While the shelter population remains stable at about 500 folks per night, their average length of stay in homelessness has been reduced from over 100 days when first measured, to under 45 days. Another significant change since beginning work on the Ten Year Plan has been a decrease in veteran homelessness. Where veterans once represented 15% of the homeless population, they are now down to 8%. Since the inception of the Ten Year Plan, 545 permanent supportive housing units have become available, reaching a 91% goal for the project.
This is indeed good news for all of us. When chronically homeless people become settled in permanent housing, with independent living skills, we all benefit, both socially and financially. To learn more about the progress of this Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, or to donate, visit the United Way of Forsyth County on the web at ForsythUnitedWay.org, or call 336-723-3601. The United Way is located in Winston-Salem at 301 North Main Street.