Unique federal program focuses on CR families

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Local advocates plan for when funding, resources end

Cedar Rapids is one of only five cities in the nation chosen for a federal demonstration project to help homeless or near homeless families with an open child welfare case.

Kelli Malone, chief program officer at Four Oaks, serves as project director of Partners United for Supportive Housing in Cedar Rapids, or PUSH-CR. The program currently serves 66 families — 80 parents and caregivers and 139 children.

“One of the goals of PUSH-CR is to keep enrolled families preserved and unified,” Malone said. “If children are already living with relatives or in foster care at the time of enrollment, we want to get them back as quickly as possible with their family.”

It’s this aspect of the program, and the supports in place to achieve the goal, that make it unique.

“Even if some of these families are able to access affordable housing, they are still caught in a cycle of homelessness and trying to overcome existing challenges,” she said.

“In some cases they’ve burned bridges — haven’t paid rent or have done damage, and have gotten evicted. It contributes to a downward spiral, making it even more difficult to find housing again.”

This house in the 500 block of 16th Street SE has been renovated and will be a home ownership incubator, or rent-to-own, house under a Four Oaks Affordable Housing Network initiative to transform the Wellington Heights neighborhood. Photographed on Monday, May 13, 2013, in Cedar Rapids.
This house in the 500 block of 16th Street SE has been renovated and will be a home ownership incubator, or rent-to-own, house under a Four Oaks Affordable Housing Network initiative to transform the Wellington Heights neighborhood. Photographed on Monday, May 13, 2013, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Breaking the vicious cycle requires more than access to shelter. PUSH-CR offers supportive housing, meaning that additional contacts, tailored to the needs of the specific families, are engaging with tenants to minimize behaviors that perpetuate problems before they become another barrier to success.

And while clients have overwhelmingly found success in this type of environment — only two have dropped out — the reality is that individual challenges are complex and nuanced.

“Some people believe families will come into a program, and they will suddenly begin a straight path to where they need to be. That’s unrealistic,” she said. “People and families don’t work that way. They move forward, and they step backward, Sometimes they go in circles.”

To illustrate, she told the story of a couple, a man and a woman, who entered the PUSH-CR program with substance abuse challenges. Initially, both did better, but they later relapsed. While the woman ultimately left the program, the man redirected his efforts. He once again tackled his demons by entering treatment and is now looking forward to welcoming his children back into his home.

“We have to hang in there with these families. We have to remember to expect success. We have to take every family individually and really engage with them and find out what their goals are and work with them to build a plan to make it happen. But, when they deviate from that plan, we can’t give up on them,” she said.

“We hang in there. We tell them, ‘You were successful. You can be successful again — and here’s the work you need to do to get there.’”

The program has already sparked worthwhile process changes. For instance, before PUSH-CR, the Department of Human Services didn’t assess families at intake for housing status. Now those assessments are routine and, if the family is in an unstable housing situation, DHS digs deeper to determine eligibility for PUSH-CR.

Although the initiative is limited to a five-year window, ending in September 2017, participants and the 22 collaborating agencies and organizations involved are already looking for the program’s components that can be feasibly continued on a local level.

“We realize that the technical assistance and resources provided through a federal demonstration project can’t be replicated locally,” Malone said. “But we’ve worked together to identify four key components within the program that we hope to sustain.”

Through a series of joint meetings, four areas have been identified: affordable-supportive housing, family team meetings, service coordination and provider communication and quality assessments

“The work that our community has to do between now and 2017 is figure out how to sustain these four components,” Malone said.

The unique level of support offered in the demonstration project — meetings between the family and a host of representatives ranging from court personnel to social service organizations — give participants a individualized service coordinator and a single plan forward. Instead of being required to meet two or three different expectation documents, participants have a unified set of goals and strong communication between all the agencies that have contributed to it.

Still, the primary need of PUSH-CR is the primary need of every organization that is battling home insecurity: housing. Incorporating added supports into the housing mix only makes the goal that much more of a challenge ­— one that the community must answer sooner rather than later.

 

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on January 24, 2016. Photo credit: Liz Martin/The Gazette