By Becky Aubut
FALL RIVER, Mass. — Back in 2014, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offered a vision to end homelessness as outlined in, “Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” which states, in part, “No one should experience homelessness. No one should be without a safe, stable place to call home.”
“There was a federal strategic plan to prevent homelessness and with regards to this federal strategic plan, HUD felt that a coordinated entry process was a crucial component to any community’s effort to meet the goals to the strategic plan,” said Nancy Lawson, coordinator for Emergency Solutions for Catholic Social Services in Fall River.
The original way — which many communities still use today — offered up resources, but a person had to make multiple calls to find help.
“If someone needed assistance and was homeless, they would call one number [and ask], ‘Do you have any help for me?’ Then they’d call another program [and ask], ‘Do you have any help for me?’ Everything was very siloed,” said Lawson of how programs worked independently of one another.
The goal of this new process was to make a systematic change so that people could take advantage of programs as a whole instead of calling and asking for help one phone call at a time. The new design was “to create an access point so that people in crisis could come into, and the system wouldn’t be as chaotic as it was,” said Lawson, and “The Call” was born.
“The Call” is 1-800-HOMELESS, a single access point for all emergency shelter services in Bristol County. “The Call” is a program of Catholic Social Services based on federal standards and expectations for shelter systems, and is operated on behalf of all shelter programs in New Bedford, Fall River and Greater Attleboro-Taunton. An individual must call this number from a local area code; that means it will only work if one calls from a phone with a 508 or 774 area code.
Bristol County is broken into different Continuum of Care areas. The Continuum of Care refers to the organizing and delivery of housing and other things to meet the needs of people who are in the middle of a housing crisis. The goal is stable housing and true self-sufficiency, and learning tools to prevent a relapse back into homelessness.
“Because the COCs encompass most of our diocese, our executive director, Arlene McNamee, felt we [Catholic Social Services] would be the perfect agency to lead this. With that, she had such great foresight that it really met with our mission,” said Lawson.
CSS in Fall River is the first to lead something like this in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts “and because we’re so unique, we’re the first to have all COCs involved in ‘The Call,’ a coordinated access to local links,” said Lawson.
Lawson has been part of the process from the very beginning, learning as much as she could about coordinated entry. The idea is to make resources inclusive throughout Bristol County.
Getting the program off the ground wasn’t easy, said Lawson. HUD gave the mandate and standardized all the resources, but did not provide funding or guidance. HUD offered outlines with the anticipation of how effective creating a coordinated entry process would be to the community.
“They wanted us to somehow have an entry process that ensured that people with the greatest need received priority with any type of housing and homeless assistance in each COC,” said Lawson. “That had to include permanent, supportive housing, rapid rehousing, and any other type of interventions that resources allowed in each community. That was a really big task for us as an agency to work not only with city resources but it meant we had to come to the table with all of the providers that had the federal dollars.”
In other words, the coordinated entry program would evolve into a group effort: “It was not going to be you-me-them-or-us, the game has to change and now it’s going to be ‘we the community,’” said Lawson.
Every client using “The Call” would become everyone’s client. Having everyone come together was difficult, said Lawson, because it meant each organization had to open up regarding its funding and “everyone becomes leery” thinking they may lose funding.
Now each COC has to look at programs within their area as a whole. There has been a drastic shift on how programs should work and is still a work in progress, said Lawson. Now programs within each COC are evaluated and tiered, and then money is awarded to each COC, like the recent HUD grant awarded to New Bedford.
New Bedford won a competitive HUD grant of $1.7 million dollars to be divided among a total of nine programs and agencies, all of which have been playing a role in the Continuum of Care blueprint that is geared towards establishing homeless individuals and families to become reestablished and independent.
“At first it was a struggle, but our partners are wonderful. We’ve definitely had bumps in the road,” said Lawson.
Catholic Social Services acts as “a cog in the wheel” getting everyone to the right place, and CSS has also partnered with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, local police departments and hospitals.
“A lot of people are working towards assisting any way they can,” said Lawson. “We try to collaborate in any way we can. I have to say, that the St. Vincent de Paul working with us has been our number one asset. With the bridging that we’ve done with St. Vincent de Paul, oftentimes if there’s someone in Seekonk who’s homeless, and it’s a family, and we’re putting them up in a hotel, we can’t get to them because we don’t have the manpower to get to them.”
If a family is in crisis, one call to St. Vincent de Paul is all it takes, and they will send somebody out.
“Our missions have become one,” said Lawson. “The Church has really worked with us. The immediate needs, we feel, are being met in crisis situations. We’re very grateful for them for that.”
Shelter beds are very limited: New Bedford has a total of 36 beds; Fall River has a total of 20 beds; and Taunton has a total of 15 beds.
When an individual calls, he or she will answer a set of questions that will help set the wheels in motion: “HUD has a specific definition of homeless and we need to find out if you’re truly homeless or at risk of homelessness, and that will give us an idea of what resources to start with, and help identify what needs the person will have,” said Lawson.
Among those questions asked is family composition, the primary language spoken, and if someone has served in the military. A case manager is also assigned, and the rehousing plan begins.
“For me, personally, in our area,” said Lawson, “seeing how we’ve been able to coordinate, work with three COCs in all the cities and towns [in Bristol County], and we can now tell you every single day, a live bed count. Using all the shelter beds available to us, I can tell you on a daily basis the beds that are available. Now if someone calls me, I can say, ‘I have two beds here, one bed here, four beds here.’ I can tell you what overflow shelters are open for bad weather. Before, we’d have to make five or six phone calls to find that out.
“You have to look as ‘The Call’ as access to local links. We are really just the hub and then we just spoke out everyone to where they need to go as quickly and as effectively as they can.”