April 20, 2017

In one case, a mother of four found herself in danger of not making rent because she’d spent more than expected on heat during this year’s brutal winter. In another, a woman faced eviction because her trailer had fallen into disrepair and no longer met the standards of the mobile home park housing it.

In both cases, and dozens of others, a new Multnomah County team stepped in to keep families housed.

“For most of the people we help, something has come up. They’ve been housed, but something has happened. Some got laid off or were assaulted or they’re not working for a couple weeks for whatever reason,” said Becky Bangs, a senior program specialist in the Department of County Human Services. “What we do can literally mean the difference between being evicted or not.”

Bangs, along with fellow senior program specialist Neisha Saxena, oversees a group of county employees from DCHS, the Health Department and the Joint Office of Homeless Services assembled in November to strengthen the county’s work around homelessness prevention.

The group, known as the Housing Stability Team, meets monthly, manages $760,000 in flexible funding and has helped more than 150 families and individuals who might otherwise have lost housing.

That number includes a woman who was nearly evicted from her mobile home park because the repairs her son made to her trailer caused more damage.

“It just all came apart because of the rain. There was water coming through the roof, water coming through the walls. And the mobile home park owner said, ‘Because your home looks so awful, we’re going to evict you,’” said Janet Hawkins, a senior program specialist in DCHS. “It was a cascading thing.”

The Housing Stability Team was able to arrange proper repairs for the trailer so the woman could remain housed.

The creation of the Housing Stability Team means more resources -- both people and money -- are being dedicated to ensuring people who already have homes don’t lose them. Their work illuminates homelessness prevention, a critical -- if overshadowed -- component of the effort to reduce homelessness.

“Number one in the three-pronged strategy (for addressing homelessness) is preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place,” said Sally Erickson of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. “Losing housing is extremely tough on families and especially families with kids.”

The loss of housing can negatively affect employment, school attendance and school performance, Erickson said. Eviction can also perpetuate poverty.

What’s more, rehousing a family that has become homeless is more expensive than prevention, often requiring many months of rent payments, alongside costs associated with providing case management and temporary shelter.

But county employees have traditionally had few tools at their disposal to directly help people at risk of becoming homeless.

Case managers, nurses and others who work directly with residents have typically had to refer families who needed help avoiding eviction to 211, which would then put them in contact with one of the nonprofits working with the county. In instances when county employees could help, they often must adhere to strict federal guidelines about how money can be spent and who can receive help.

“It’s this gap that we’ve had in services,” Bangs said.

The Housing Stability Team provides a way to more quickly provide funds that can mean the difference between living in a home or on the street. It also provides an avenue for county employees to team up across divisions and departments to assist people in vulnerable housing situations.

“We have this pot of money and we’re using it to support existing county clients in programs where they don’t typically have flexible funds to use for eviction prevention and to prevent homelessness,” Saxena said. “The funds are flexible so folks can get them out quickly and use them to pay rent or to pay utility bills or other things that help keep people in their housing.”

In the Health Department, for instance, that means that nurses working in the Nurse Family Partnership, Healthy Birth Initiative and Healthy Homes Asthma Home Visiting program can link their patients in those programs to housing assistance.That gives healthcare providers an opportunity to form closer bonds with their patients and also help to relieve some of the stress they face, said Kamesha Robinson, a senior health policy advisor in the Health Department.

“Before there was a gap on our side. They didn’t know where to send people. We didn’t have that infrastructure,” Robinson said. “When they’re able to help with this other need, they’re able to work with their clients in a deeper way around their care than they had been before. Now they can work with them in a more holistic way.”

The housing team has found that in most cases those on the verge of eviction need just a few hundred dollars to remain housed, Bangs said.

“For as little, sometimes, as $500, we can pay a portion of someone’s rent,” Bangs said. “And that saves the system so much money than if they were to actually become homeless.”

The mother of four, a domestic violence survivor whose abuser had been the breadwinner, needed help paying her gas and electric bills. When her gas was turned off, she purchased electric heaters to keep her apartment warm during winter. But the heaters caused her electricity bill to skyrocket.

Paying off the bill would have made it impossible to cover rent, said Allison Riser, a senior program specialist in the Domestic and Sexual Violence division of DCHS. The housing team was able to pay both bills.

“So that was one of our nice wins,” Riser said.

With its launch coming during this year’s colder-than-usual winter, the housing stability program saw outsized need from people who found themselves in a hole because their utility bills were more expensive than normal. They also heard from people who were short on cash because they lost wages when snow and ice caused multiple days of business closures.

“For most of the clients, it’s that something has come up,” Bangs said. “There’s this myth that there are all these people who need long term rent assistance but in this program we’ve found that most people have a little hiccup in their life and just need a little assistance to help them out.”