With its 3-month old family diversion program now well underway, the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance (CMHA) has fundamentally changed the way at-risk families interact with and receive support from the state. The debut of the new family diversion program empowers families with a voice in determining their immediate future, allowing them to choose between traditional shelter and finding placement in housing with the personalized support of the new diversion specialist. Because each family has been determined EA eligible by the DHCD Homeless Coordinator in advance of meeting with the diversion specialist there is no doubt that without this intervention the families would have gone to EA shelter. There is currently one diversion specialist stationed at the Worcester DTA/DHCD office. The diversion specialist is Marcia Shannon an experienced provider with CMHA who is using her years of practice to empower families to avoid shelter.
In the new system, families entering the Fitchburg and Worcester DTA offices first see a DHCD worker, who conducts an initial screening to determine EA eligibility, and then are transferred to a diversion specialist for a more in depth – and, often, more candid – discussion of viable next steps. The diversion specialist communicates to the family that in addition to shelter, the option of housing is available to them if they are willing to think resourcefully and develop a plan for obtaining a steady income by the end of the one year shallow subsidy. This subsidy is funded by the Regional Network’s flexible funds, DHCD Toolbox funds, and soon by HPRP funds. The strong majority (upwards of 95%) of families are eager to explore alternatives to shelter and are often relieved to discover they can leverage their existing resources – such as partners, boyfriends, parents, relatives, and friends – rather than hide them when creating a housing plan.
The DHCD’s 3-month rent subsidies and other private and public funds facilitate the diversion and housing of families under CMHA’s new diversion plan. Furthermore, the fact that families are pre-determined to be EA eligible at intake does not mean that they need to be EA eligible at placement – meaning they could have their boyfriend or roommate move in with them to help with the rent without risking their placement. If a second earner agrees to move in with the family (in market rate housing) they sign a contract to pay their portion of the rent, making the household more sustainable.
Landlords have proven to be essential partners in creating housing options for families looking to be diverted from shelter. Often landlords will lend to the diversion specialist keys to available units so that families can see their prospective homes within a matter of days after entering the DTA/ DHCD office. Landlord surveys are mailed by CMHA with the monthly checks so that landlords have an easy way to alert CMHA of any problems with the tenant, building trust and accountability in this crucial relationship between CMHA and the landlord. Over the past 3 months, CMHA has been able to divert between 8 and 9 families per month through this program, signifying a paradigm shift in the intake and treatment of at-risk and homeless families. As the relationship between the DHCD Homeless Coordinators and the diversion specialist continues to strengthen, proactive steps are increasingly being taken in addressing the challenges of this move from a shelter-first to a diversion and rapid re-housing model in the fight against family homelessness.
For more information on this shelter diversion program please contact Grace Carmark at the Central Mass Housing Alliance at (508) 791-7265