Advancing Equity: A Letter to the Your Way Home Community

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Dear Your Way Home Community,

Last Friday, I was honored to host many of you for our 6th Annual Your Way Home Summit: Advancing Equity. As the Administrator for the lead public agency of Your Way Home, the Montgomery County Office of Housing and Community Development, I recognize that this event provides an opportunity for many of our core providers, community partners, funders, landlords, and consumers to hear about the progress we’ve made in ending homelessness over the past year, and the work that we plan to do moving forward to accelerate our impact.
 
This year’s Summit provided much to celebrate:

  • A 37% reduction in homelessness since 2014, as measured by our annual Point in Time Count, including a 50% reduction in homelessness among families with children.
  • An increase in the percentage of people exiting homeless shelters directly to permanent housing to 57%, up from 35% prior to Your Way Home launching, and
  • A success rate of 86% overall- meaning that of the people we help to move to permanent housing, 86% do not return to homelessness within at least 2 years.

 
These accomplishments are due to the efforts of our community members who have worked so hard to move the needle on these challenging issues, by embracing strategies like Coordinated Entry, housing-focused Emergency Shelters, Housing Resource Centers, strong connections to Supportive Services in our community, and a partnership structure that includes voices from across sectors to guide our common agenda.
 
And yet- there is still so much work to be done.
 
As my experience as a Your Way Home system leader has evolved over the past four years, I have come to learn that even our best interventions can only go so far to help people recover from the traumatic experience of homelessness.
 
In other words, we have treated the symptoms of homelessness, but not the root causes- like poverty, violence, discrimination, and a lack of affordable housing, to name a few.
 
During our Summit last Friday, I was able to share how Your Way Home has finally built the will, resources and champions to dig into these root cause issues, and to understand their relationship to homelessness and what we can do about them, together, as a community.
 
Here’s what we believe to be true:
 
First, for every 1 household that experiences homelessness in Montgomery County, 20 more are on the brink. The problem is, it’s difficult to predict who they are, whether they will become homeless, or how to prevent them from doing so. And just to be clear, we simply do not have the funding or human resources to help everyone. However, we’ve spent the past year researching better strategies and promising practices to do so. This research culminates in our Unlocking Doors report.
 
Second, is that we know that homelessness is disproportionately experienced by people of color and other historically underrepresented and disadvantaged groups. In Montgomery County, 50% of the population we serve through Your Way Home is black or African American, compared to about 9% of the general population. Forty-eight percent of persons served by Your Way Home have at least one reported disabling condition, compared to 14% of the general population in the state of Pennsylvania.  Sixty-four percent of homeless households are headed by women, including 89% of households with children. Finally, national studies have indicated that as many as 40% of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ, compared to about 7% in the general population.
 
So, when you begin to look at the data closely; when you study our country’s major systems like housing, criminal justice, and healthcare; and when you really listen to people’s stories, you can’t help but conclude the following:
 
We cannot talk about ending homelessness without also talking about the impact of institutional and structural discrimination on certain groups, particularly on people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities. We cannot help but conclude that our systems have been designed to discriminate against these groups, and that as a result, it has become easier for certain groups to become homeless in the first place, and it is harder for them to leave.
 
As advocates, policymakers, funders, landlords, and service providers, we have an imperative to not only deeply understand the issue of discrimination and its impact on homelessness, but we must also proactively work to redesign and retool our programs, organizations, and culture to overcome these inequities.
 
Your Way Home is committed to leading this conversation forward. At our Summit, we provided some introductory material on the topic of equity and homelessness through our keynote speaker, Jeff Olivet, whose work on Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities concluded that structural racism is a driving factor of homelessness. You can read more about his work here. Jeff’s firm will continue to work with Your Way Home through the fall to conduct an Equity Evaluation.  This evaluation will review our Your Way Home system performance data, policies and procedures, and board recruitment practices through an equity lens and then will provide specific strategies for our partnership to adopt in pursuance of advancing equity. A multi-sector Advisory Team is being gathered to guide this work, and will be hosting community forums and consumer listening sessions throughout the summer and fall. We’ll be sharing progress on this evaluation at futureCommunity Meetings, through our newsletter, and on our website and social mediachannels.
 
We also hosted a panel discussion at the Summit with leaders from philanthropy, public health, and affordable housing to discuss the impact of equity in these systems. The spirit of their discussion was captured in graphic visuals, featured above. Finally, we provided copies of The Color of Law and “Awake to Woke to Work: Advancing a Race Equity Culture”, to all conference attendees. You can find copies or links to these resources on the Resources page of our website.
 
Our Summit on Friday started the conversation on equity within our partnership, but we know that this is a long road ahead. While our Equity Evaluation will provide more specific strategies and goals, the Your Way Home Operations Team will be adopting some initial strategies to advance equity in our partnership, such as:

  • Sharing system performance data disaggregated by demographic group;
  • Including equity, discrimination, bias, and similar topics as part of our Community Meetings, Continuum of Care Governance Team meetings, and Action/ Advisory Team meetings moving forward;
  • Ensuring diversity on our councils, teams, and speaker panels that is representative of the populations we serve;
  • Providing more training opportunities for topics such as implicit bias and microaggressions;
  • Connecting our community to more resources for learning about issues of discrimination and equity, especially as it relates to ending homelessness, through our website, newsletter, and social media.

 
I’m continually humbled by the passion for ending homelessness among our community, and encouraged by the number of people who have already reached out since Friday to share that the decision to advance equity in our partnership is an imperative that will strengthen our system. I invite you to join us in taking this significant and courageous step towards advancing equity for the benefit of all.
 
In partnership,
 
Emma W. Hertz, MPA
Administrator, Montgomery County Office of Housing and Community Development

New Report: Unlocking Doors to Homeless Prevention

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Since 2014, the Your Way Home system has evolved to include a single call center, diversion from shelter for those that have alternative housing options, housing-focused emergency shelters, a robust rapid re-housing program, and prioritization for permanent supportive housing for those that need more support to maintain housing stability. As a result of these system transformations, Montgomery County has reduced homelessness by 37% in four years.

However, our work is not done.

While our system is positioned to more effectively respond to the crisis of homelessness, we haven’t yet tackled the monumental effort of preventing more vulnerable families and individuals from losing their housing in the first place. If we are to truly meet our goal of making homelessness a rare event, we must start to work “upstream".

Your Way Home is  thrilled to share the final report from our eviction prevention research study, “Unlocking Doors to Homelessness Prevention: Solutions for Preventing Homelessness and Eviction.” This report is the culmination of the research study sponsored by HealthSpark Foundation to help Your Way Home develop a comprehensive homelessness and eviction prevention strategy in Montgomery County.

Through this study, we reviewed local data to better understand the need for eviction prevention services in the County, identified model eviction prevention strategies from our peer communities across the country, and solicited community feedback on which projects to implement locally. The study has led to the launch of two pilot projects to address homelessness prevention, the Eviction Prevention and Intervention Coalition (EPIC) and the School-Based Homelessness Prevention Program
 

The “Unlocking Doors” report includes information on our research process, the models we studied, and our implementation status. It also shares helpful tips for philanthropy, community partners, and local governments looking to adopt similar strategies in their own communities.

"As a final note, one of my personal “lessons learned” from this study has been that partnerships are the key to addressing complex and widespread issues like homelessness prevention and housing instability. Alone, none of our organizations or sectors can meet the needs of our most vulnerable residents- rather, we need the collective expertise, wisdom, resources, and support from each of our groups to truly address these types of social challenges. I’m grateful to be a part of an initiative that creates these types of partnerships."

-Emma Hertz, Administrator of the Montgomery County Office of Housing & Community Development


To read the full report, please click here.

International Women's Day

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Happy International Women’s Day! 

 
In a year that has been especially turbulent, it is more important than ever that we take a second and acknowledge today as one of significant reflection.  The International Women's Day 2018 campaign theme is #PressforProgress.  Press for Progress is a push for global attention towards achieving the ultimate goal of gender equality.
 
No issue is an island, and crucial to collective impact is the acknowledgement that achieving real impact means driving real action.  Collective action and shared responsibility for furthering gender equality are what make International Women's Day successful. Sheryl Sandberg, the author of the bestselling Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, once said, “We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.”
 
Your Way Home is proud to spotlight our entirely female 24/7 street outreach team.  In October Your Way Home launched its partnership with Access Services.  Through this partnership we are now able to provide services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, prioritizing housing and benefits for vulnerable families, youth and single adults experiencing homelessness.   Services include: round the clock responsivity for physical resources, screening and assessment, housing counseling, and connection to housing resources.
 
Your Way Home’s priority is to serve individuals who are living outdoors, in their cars, in tents, or in other places not meant for human habitation. The complex needs, configurations, and situations of families and individuals who are experiencing street homelessness is assessed every day by the Your Way Home’s trauma-informed, street outreach team.  Following the core principals of trauma-informed care is something that has made our street outreach team especially successful in their work.  They have succeeded in creating a trustworthy environment while maintaining appropriate boundaries and empowering clients. 
 
Your Way Home has made it a priority that no pregnant women or child under 5 should ever be without shelter, due to the serious health consequences associated with the experience.  In 2017 alone Your Way Home served 646 women which is 52% of the population served by the program.  It is important to acknowledge the unique challenges facing homeless women including: access to proper prenatal care, menstruation products, and increased risks of domestic violence, just to name a few. 
 
“International Women's Day is not country, group or organization specific. The day belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. So together, let's all be tenacious in accelerating gender parity. Collectively, let's all Press for Progress.”https://www.internationalwomensday.com/Theme  
 
We need to applaud the strong women, like our street outreach team who are doing amazing, life-changing work.  Their job is not easy, they don’t always witness a happy ending, but they continue to get up every day and  make a difference.  Thank you ladies, for your strength, resilience and tenacity.  You are amazing!  #PressForProgress