Economy

How An Innovative Nonprofit Uses $700 To Prevent Families From Becoming Homeless

CREDIT: Flickr user @media.wweek

A homeless family poses in their new home in Portland, Oregon.

Though no one deserves to be homeless, perhaps the cause that’s hardest to accept is what happened to Ann: a simple technicality.

A few years ago, Ann, a Cambridge woman in her mid-60s, faced a crisis when the very agency she was laid off from — the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Insurance — stopped providing her assistance because of a technicality. Without this vital source of income, and unable to immediately find a new job due in part to physical and cognitive disabilities she sustained during a brain injury at birth, Ann fell behind on rent. Despite living in her apartment for more than five years, she faced eviction.

But Ann didn’t get evicted.

What prevented her from being forced to live on the streets was a small but vitally important intervention from a local nonprofit, HomeStart: it spotted her a month’s rent. This kept the landlord at bay, giving case managers time to help Ann work out a new personal budget and apply for Social Security Disability Insurance. Though once on the cusp of homelessness, a favor from a nonprofit kept her in a home.

Prevention may seem an obvious tactic for fighting homelessness, but in the opaque world that is homelessness and low-income housing, it’s one that is often ignored. Linda Wood-Boyle, CEO of Boston-based HomeStart, explained the problem to ThinkProgress. “People would call because they’re about to be evicted, asking, ‘What do I do?’ The only answer many organizations could give is ‘Sorry, call back once you get to the shelter.'”

Like medicine, prevention is crucial with homelessness, both from a human and a financial perspective. A family that can stay in its home rather than moving to a shelter (or the streets) doesn’t have to traumatize its children, uproot them from schools, or force them to leave everything they know as home. And ending homelessness has an extraordinarily high return on investment. After all, study after study has shown that it’s far more expensive to leave homeless people on the street rather than provide them with housing and services.

So 11 years ago, HomeStart started a pilot program to fight homelessness by preventing it in the first place. When a Boston-area family or individual is on the cusp of being evicted because they can’t afford their next payment, they can get in touch with HomeStart. Assuming the only issue is non-payment, rather than a behavioral issue like violence or drugs causing the eviction threat, HomeStart then acts as a middleman between the tenant and landlord, often covering the next month’s rent and helping set up a feasible payment installment plan for the tenant if the landlord agrees not to evict.

Landlords are generally happy to work with HomeStart, considering how expensive and time-consuming the eviction process is. Tenants are thrilled because they can stay in their homes. And an average grant only costs HomeStart $700, compared to the $30,000 price tag it would cost the state of Massachusetts to put a homeless family in a motel for a year.

In a given year, HomeStart helps prevent up to 600 evictions. But it could be helping many more. Despite doing no advertising at all, the program currently has a waiting list.

What’s holding it back from expanding to help more families who are near eviction, however, is funding. HomeStart has steadily grown over the past two decades and now has 65 employees in Boston, but the fact remains that there is little state or federal money earmarked for preventing homelessness. Currently, the prevention program runs entirely on private donations; there is no public funding for it whatsoever. “We certainly are looking for federal or state money,” Wood-Boyle said. “We’re not opposed to that. Just no one has been offering yet.”