The Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, wrote, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). In context, the Prophet was talking about building homes and settling down in your city (see Jeremiah 29:4-6). If someone in our city is unsheltered, how can we, who are sheltered, pray for prosperity without simultaneously providing shelter to those experiencing homelessness? In reality, the health of a city is not found in low unemployment numbers or high-income salaries. Rather, the health of a city is found in how well ALL of its citizens are faring. We prosper when everyone prospers. We seek peace by providing opportunities for everyone to succeed.
King Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, wrote, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). There is something powerful about a set of three cords. Thus, our vision involves three cords of support and three cords of services. The three cords of support (this includes funding, volunteers, staff, etc.) are the religious/non-profit community, the business community, and the government. Implied in all three is individual support. We envision all three major components of our community working together to create a sustainable shelter that ministers to people holistically—spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
Through our religious/non-profit community we desire to work across all faiths and denominations, building support from which we can draw expertise, funding, and volunteers. Through our business community we believe we can tap into our city’s philanthropic spirit, as well as increase volunteer engagement. Finally, working closely with our governmental leaders will ensure the safety and security of our homeless population. Our three cords of service involve seeking to minister to the whole person; meeting physical needs, emotional/mental needs, and spiritual needs.
LEVELS OF NEED
The most basic level of need is an emergency shelter. Simply a safe place to stay where one can receive love, a meal, a shower, and a comfortable bed. The expectations of a person seeking emergency shelter are low. The expectation is really on us to love and accept everyone unconditionally. We will be there to assist people in the emergency shelter in taking next steps if they so choose. But if they do not, or are not ready, the emergency shelter will be there for them to rest and recover. All individuals will be welcomed with open arms.
A second level of need is supportive services. This is a person who reaches out and asks for help beyond a place to sleep. This person will be assigned a case worker who will start the process of identifying what the person’s needs are and how to best address those needs. At this level of need, partnering with other churches, non-profits, and agencies in and around our community becomes critical. For example, if a person needs health insurance, we will seek out agencies that can provide and/or advocate for them. If they need counseling, we will reach out to agencies that do counseling, or job training, or whatever the need may be. The assigned case worker will walk with this person for as long as needed.
The next level of need would be transitional housing. At this point, the person will move into a “dormitory/pod” style part of the shelter, or into a partnering group home. Transitional housing will be based on gender and family dynamics. Ideally, a person (or family) would stay in transitional housing for up to six months. This would allow the person (or family) an opportunity to get a job, save up money for permanent housing, and give them an address that could be used on job applications and to enroll their children in school.
The fourth level of need is permanent housing. For some people, this will include more supportive housing, or subsidized housing. For others, it would be the ability to support their own housing options. Our vision includes encouraging churches to commit to providing permanent housing as needed. If every church in Williamson County committed to either purchasing a home to be used for housing, or leasing apartment units, the churches in our county would have more housing units at their disposal than our government agencies and non-profits combined. All religions have instructions to care for the poor. What a great testimony it would be if our city/county could say that our faith communities united to eliminate homelessness in our town!
The goal of any homeless alliance should be to end homelessness. While that may sound impossible, it can be done, and is being done throughout the country. To date, using a definition that states ending homelessness means homelessness is “rare, brief, and gets solved correctly and quickly,” nine communities across the country have reached the goal of “functional zero” for veteran homelessness, three communities have reached that goal for chronic homelessness, and thirty-nine communities have made “measurable progress” towards the goal of “functional zero.”
The key to reaching “functional zero,” is churches, businesses, government, and non-profits working together, sharing resources and data. In Abilene, TX (a city similar in size to Franklin, TN), “functional zero” was accomplished, in part, by locating “every veteran, gather(ing) information about each individual situation, and stor(ing) this information in a ‘by-name list’ that was continually updated.” Said one person who worked towards this goal, “It basically just forced us to continuously look to change improvements to our system, and how to use real-time data to improve our performance.”
The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (a 19 federal member agencies) defines ending homelessness as “ensuring that it is rare, brief, and one-time occurrence.” They have identified the following benchmarks to show progress towards ending chronic homelessness:
- The community has identified and provided outreach to all individuals experiencing or at risk for chronic homelessness, and prevents chronic homelessness whenever possible.
- The community provides access to shelter or other temporary accommodations immediately to any person experiencing unsheltered chronic homelessness who wants it.
- The community has implemented a community-wide Housing First orientation and response that also considers the preferences of the individuals being served.
- The community assists people experiencing chronic homelessness to move swiftly into permanent housing with the appropriate level of supportive services and effectively prioritizes people for permanent supportive housing.
- The community has resources, plans, and system capacity in place to prevent chronic homelessness from occurring and to ensure that individuals who experienced chronic homelessness do not fall into homelessness again or, if they do, are quickly reconnected to permanent housing.
Considering the fact that we, as a city/county, are at benchmark #2, the National Alliance to End Homelessness has identified Five Keys to Effective Emergency Shelter:
- Housing First Approach: Align shelter eligibility criteria, policies, and practices with a Housing First approach so that anyone experiencing homelessness can access shelter without prerequisites, make services voluntary, and assist people to access permanent housing options as quickly as possible.
- Safe and Appropriate Diversion: Provide diversion services to find safe and appropriate housing alternatives to entering shelter through problem-solving conversations, identifying community supports, and offering lighter touch solutions. (See the article “Implementing Diversion at Emergency Shelter” in the appendix.)
- Immediate and Low-Barrier Access: Ensure immediate and easy access to shelter by lowering barriers to entry and staying open 24/7. Eliminate sobriety and income requirements and other policies that make it difficult to enter shelter, stay in shelter, or access housing and income opportunities.
- Housing-Focused Rapid Exit Services: Focus services in shelter on assisting people to access permanent housing options as quickly as possible.
- Data to Measure Performance: Measure data on percentage of exits to housing, average length of stay in shelter, and returns to homelessness to evaluate the effectiveness of shelter and improve outcomes.
Much more could be written, but hopefully what has been written gives you a glimpse of our vision and philosophy. Suffice it to say the goal of our shelter will not be to enable people to continue destructive habits. Rather, the goal is to empower people to become healthy spiritually, physically, and emotionally.