The quest to solve homelessness is in full force among Abilene nonprofits serving people in need, and the Community Foundation of Abilene is honored to be on the front line serving alongside these problem-solving agencies.
"Our role in this has really been a neutral party on the homeless issue and really getting to be more of a facilitator and convener and getting to be a part of the solution when all of these nonprofits come to the table and really try to tackle this," CFA President/CEO Katie Alford said at the Abilene City Council meeting on December 20, 2018.
CFA Grant Director Michelle Parrish has been working closely with the nonprofits that make up the West Texas Homeless Network over the past year to implement new initiatives to help people experiencing homelessness get into homes, initiatives that are making a marked difference.
"Our community has made unprecedented accomplishments over the last 18 months," Michelle said. "Abilene truly is a shining star across the State, serving as a model for other communities to follow. While some of this progress may look and feel “behind the scenes,” it has a direct impact for any neighbors currently experiencing homelessness. We are simply more efficient, more engaging, and able to respond more timely to those in crisis. And, the best part: this momentum and progress continue to grow."
Michelle presented the following comprehensive update on these initiatives at the December 20 city council meeting:
First, our community successfully implemented a Coordinated Entry system in January. This move was required by HUD (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development), and is a best practice for communities across the country. Abilene was one of the first communities of our size to successfully implement coordinated entry in Texas.
Our system, called Home Again West Texas, is a network of local service providers cooperating to ensure that people in need of housing are quickly identified, assessed, and connected to housing and assistance based on their strengths and needs. The idea is to streamline the process: no more side doors or receiving assistance based on who you know. Instead, we are creating fair and equal access to resources by funneling everyone with a housing crisis through this new system.
Three local organizations are designated as the coordinated entry points, based on their ability to connect people to housing. Everyone who enters the system receives a standard assessment, which generates a vulnerability score. These scores are rank ordered onto one list, called the Housing Priority list. When a housing provider begins to look at whom to serve next, they start at the top of that list, seeking to serve those who are most vulnerable first.
We are trying to prevent anyone else from dying on an Abilene street, and this is how we are prioritizing their needs.
Right now, chipping away at that list is slow. It continues to grow as we get a better grasp on exactly who is in our community and what their needs are. And truthfully, many people will sit on the list until new housing and funding opportunities open up. Coordinated entry provides a streamlined system, but is also provides necessary information about service needs and gaps. Every day, we gather more information to help our community better plan and identify needed resources.
Another accomplishment of 2018 includes our 100-Day Challenge. The day after our coordinated entry system went live in January 2018, we began a 100-Day Challenge to house 50 of our most vulnerable neighbors in 100 days. This meant that 50 people would enter into lease agreements with support systems in place to help them find stability. While we had a goal to serve 50, our new coordinated entry system housed 64 people in 100 days – a goal no one locally thought we would accomplish. This challenge also provided an intense test of our new coordinated entry system, forcing growth along the way.
Since January 23, 2018, close to 200 individuals (including families) were served in local housing programs. We do know that not all of the individuals that enter our coordinated entry system will find success and stability, and there will be some that return to homelessness. But our program providers are constantly modifying their standards and protocols, and there is greater success now than ever before.
The last accomplishment I’ll share involves the creation of a By-Name List. We have developed a list (by name) of everyone experiencing homelessness in our community. The intent is to track those in need, but also to give a realistic view of services and gaps.
You can understand the value of better data collection, especially as it pertains to funding opportunities and program development. You can also understand the value of knowing who is on our streets at any one time, whether by circumstance or choice. Currently, there are 168 actively homeless individuals on the by name list. We know there are missing names and there is more work to be done. The list ebbs and flows and is constantly changing. Our entry points are working to keep that information accurate and relevant.
With so much rapid growth and change occurring over the last 12 months, let me now share some exciting projections for 2019.
The Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness is a nationwide campaign coordinated by several federal agencies including the U.S Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD, and the VA. The campaign features a network of elected officials, including mayors, county and city officials, and governors from across the country who have made a commitment to ensure homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring, beginning with veterans. Since 2014, 65 communities across 33 states have been confirmed as having achieved the goal of the Mayor's Challenge by standards set by these federal agencies.
When we approached Mayor Williams with this idea, he quickly said, “Yes - I’ll do whatever I can,” and in October, we launched into another radical goal: to reach “functional zero” for veteran homelessness in Abilene, and to do it within 100 days. The designation of “functional zero” means a community’s homeless response system has the capacity and coordination to immediately house any Veteran who identifies as homeless.
Our plan is to have a system that is efficient and effective, so that veterans are housed just as quickly as they are identified in Abilene, resulting in a balanced inflow and outflow, and creating stasis. This stasis equals functional zero. Once these men and women are housed, providers are stepping in to offer support services to ensure our veterans find stability and success.
While it may sound impressive to include Abilene in the list of 65 other communities who have reached Functional Zero, we are actually working to gain this recognition under an even more stringent measure. This more difficult standard is offered and tracked through a learning collaborative called “Built For Zero”.
Many of our accomplishments are tangible and measurable, but equally important, are the new relationships created and the synergy that has developed among our local service providers. These nonprofits have deeply committed teams working in Abilene. But with 160+ individuals on our by-name list right now, our community must stay focused on the goal to keep all homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring in Abilene.
The work of the West Texas Homeless Network goes on.