New housing vouchers for chronically homeless

A fresh start for 20 of Boulder County’s most vulnerable residents

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Help homeless people into homes, and everybody seems to win. It’s one of those rare solutions that is as obvious as it is difficult to accomplish. But it’s also one that can be fundamentally life changing, if done correctly.

Recently, Boulder County received state funds to do exactly that — get people experiencing homelessness into housing. And they’re taking the best evidence-based approach to do it.

In October, Homeless Solutions for Boulder County (HSBC) was awarded a grant by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs for 20 housing vouchers, representing roughly $1 million dollars in housing funds over the next four years. The vouchers will provide rental assistance and support services for 20 of Boulder County’s most vulnerable, chronically homeless residents.

The Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) model is a Housing First-based approach to homelessness, says Jennifer Biess, the homeless services systems manager for Boulder County.

On its surface, the idea seems simple: People require basic necessities like shelter and food before they can sort out other problems like unemployment, substance abuse and inability to properly budget resources. Getting folks into housing first and then managing everything else is a formula that has proven effective. Studies have found such a model has a 98 percent long-term housing retention rate while improving perceived levels of autonomy among clients.

“Permanent supportive housing has been demonstrated to have better outcomes in terms of housing stability than any other approach for this chronically homeless population,” Biess says. It is one of the most effective solutions for homelessness, which, after all, is fundamentally a housing issue, no matter how you slice it.

Once housed, people formerly experiencing homelessness have a secure platform from which they can go about their lives. They’re safer. They aren’t “camping out,” covering themselves with sleeping bags and blankets or cycling through different shelters.

Typically, funding for this kind of housing comes from federal or local government sources. However, these vouchers are unique in that they are coming from the State of Colorado. The Boulder County Community Services Department spearheaded a two-month-long application effort for this grant, a collaborative effort by myriad service providers and nonprofits working with the homeless in Boulder County.

“Every agency and organization that is part of Homeless Solutions for Boulder County is now working in close coordination, and this award is testament to our collaborative approach,” Biess said in the press release announcing the vouchers.

Of the 20 units that HSBC is attaching these housing vouchers to, eight are owned by the Inn Between of Longmont, the other 12 by the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.

And, while rental assistance is an essential aspect of these vouchers, they also provide far more than that. Inherent to the PSH model are supportive services, designed to help clients work toward autonomy and better-maintain stable housing — be it psychological, medical or civil assistance.

“Each client will get assigned a case manager and it’s that person’s responsibility to get that client the resources they need to stay housed,” explains Greg Harms, CEO of the Boulder Shelter. “If it’s that they need help getting to the food bank every week, that’s what we’ll do. If they need help with their social security application, that’s what we’ll do. If they need physical health resources, we’ll get them over to the clinic. It will be the responsibility of the case manager to bring the resources to bear for that person.”

The 12 apartments in Boulder, owned by the Boulder Shelter at Remington Post in North Boulder, were previously designated for “transitional housing,” Harms explains. He says, the clients were always employed, they could pay some rent, but not market rent, and their time in those apartments was very limited.

The new clients moving into those apartments, by contrast, are on the other end of the spectrum.

Will Brendza
Twelve of the 20 permanent supportive housing units in Boulder County are owned by Boulder Shelter at Remington House.

“We’re moving from offering these units to the people who are least vulnerable, to the people who are most vulnerable,” Harms says.

Meaning that the clients who fill them will, in all likelihood, be staying for the foreseeable future. And truly, when it comes to PSH, that’s the real measure of success — the longer you can keep clients housed and supported, the more effective your efforts will have been.

“The intention is that this is a permanent resource,” Biess says. “There is a recertification process periodically, but typically these types of permanent housing programs are intended to be long-term.”

To be eligible for these housing vouchers in the first place (or for any homeless services in Boulder, for that matter), requires a person go through Boulder’s Coordinated Entry process. Single individuals seeking services like permanent housing, or even shelter for the night, must go through a short screening process to assess their vulnerability and needs. Clients with the highest levels of vulnerability will be referred to BSHC by the regional OneHome system, and then if all goes right, they’ll soon be set up in a new, permanent home.

Currently, though, these 12 apartments are still occupied by the Shelter’s transitional housing clients. So, it can’t open up all of them right away. Instead, the units are slowly rolling over into these new vouchers, phasing out the transitional housing clients and filling their vacancies with PSH clients.

By December, Harms says, the first voucher recipient will be moving into their new home. Then, hopefully, it’s all downhill from there.

“Clients will contribute about a third of their income towards their housing, that’s generally what’s considered affordable,” Biess explains. “And these vouchers make up the difference between what that client can afford and what the standard market price is on that unit, what the landlord would normally charge for it.”

But, she clarifies, having an income at all is not a requirement for eligibility. If a client has absolutely no income whatsoever, then the voucher would still make up that entire difference, she says. “But then, as part of their support services we’d be looking at what other sources of income we could help them find.”

In fact, the only requirement is the initial coordinated entry screening process. Beyond that, it’s just about having a real and serious need for housing.

“There’s no requirement,” Harm affirms. “We don’t force anything on people because we’ve found it just doesn’t work. Our number one goal is just to keep people housed.”

Beyond that, the Housing First model is also a cost-effective measure for the community. Because, as Harms explains, those who will most likely qualify for the vouchers, are typically drawing heavily and regularly upon social services.

He describes the track record of the last 10 people the Boulder Shelter has put into permanent supportive housing: “They had a total of 4,100 stays in the shelter, 1,250 jail days, 20 trips to the hospital in the ambulance every year,” he says. “And so you can see, if we take those people out of that system, it has a big impact.”

It costs roughly $43,000 a year to let someone experience homelessness, Biess says. Because they are cycling through emergency services, shelters, courts and jails, the cost of their homelessness weighs heavily upon the taxpayer.

By contrast, it costs less than half of that to put someone up in permanent supportive housing, $20,000 a year, according to Biess. That being the case, the vouchers should be able to cover the expense of housing and related services for 20 clients in Boulder County.

Some may believe in a place like Boulder County — where the homeless shelter’s 160 beds are almost always full all year long — a program helping just 20 people seems like a drop in a bucket. This could look especially true considering that, as of August, the number of people who had applied for help through the Coordinated Entry process in Boulder and Longmont was up to 2,495 individuals, most of whom are likely still in need of help.

“This is just one piece of our strategy of trying to get more exits available,” Harms says. “We have 31 permanent clients next door [to the Shelter] and we have 22 clients in scattered site units. So we have 53 clients in total, and now we’re going to add 12 more with these new vouchers.”

It’s all about progress, even if it’s just one or two (or 20) individuals at a time.

“We started doing this permanent supportive housing about 10 years ago,” Harms says. “And rather than investing in more temporary kinds of solutions, like building more shelters, we’ve really been focused on how we can increase these exit opportunities.”

It’s a sentiment that even homelessness activists like Darren O’Conner with Boulder Rights Watch admit they can get behind. “I generally spend a lot of my time voicing critiques of the system-wide policies,” he says. “But I do want to acknowledge that any time they are finding more ways to get people into housing, that is the number one solution to homelessness.”

O’Conner points out, however, that this is all on the “exit side” of homelessness.

“On the entrance side, the City and the County and the service agencies have created a set of criteria of who gets in and who has to remain on the streets,” O’Conner says. “And when they remain on the street they’re subject to the camping ban where they’re given citations and some of them end up in jail because they simply used a blanket, or even because they laid down on a piece of cardboard at night.”

The camping ban, which disproportionately affects Boulder’s homeless population, makes it illegal to use things like blankets and cardboard at night — no matter how cold it is out. When people experiencing homelessness don’t make it into a shelter bed, and don’t get a bus ticket out of town, they’re subject to citations and potentially even jail time if they try to bed down and cover up in city limits.

For homeless individuals who don’t qualify for the new PSH vouchers, this is, and will continue to be, the reality they face.

Still, O’Connor says, increased availability of permanent housing is a step in the right direction, no matter how many people get access to it.

With a progressive model like permanent supportive housing, these vouchers may very well represent the beginning of a new chapter for some of this county’s vulnerable individuals. And changing 20 lives for the better is no small thing no matter how many others are still in need.