How should community be defined? After completing a quick internet search and thumbing through a dusty dictionary, the definition found was overly simplistic. The communities that Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC) is privileged to work with are much more than “a group of people living in the same place.” The communities we work with are a collective group of dedicated people, made up of diverse stakeholders, who are searching for a solution to assist their most vulnerable neighbors—homeless individuals and families in Missouri.
How can we help our most vulnerable? In 2004, San Francisco’s mayor and Department of Public Health crafted a model—Project Homeless Connect (PHC)—that significantly impacts how people across the United States organize service delivery to the homeless. The radical idea? Organize service providers together in one central location for a one-day, one-stop event to provide immediate access to quality-of-life services for the homeless community.
In 2005, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness launched the National Project Homeless Connect Partnership; the number of cities hosting PHC events from 2005 through 2008 grew to over 200 nationwide. Although these events were sprouting up in large metropolitan cities, the staff of MHDC, which serves as the lead agency for the Missouri Balance of State (BoS) Continuum of Care (CoC) Program that covers 101 rural counties, saw an opportunity to bring this immediate-service delivery model to smaller communities within the BoS regions.
Along with the Missouri Governor’s Committee to End Homelessness (GCEH) (the governing body of the BoS CoC), MHDC created a strategic implementation plan. In 2009, MHDC and the GCEH hosted Missouri’s first PHC event in Columbia, located in the central part of the state. Because of the success of this event, MHDC established a $10,000 grant program to fund an annual PHC event in a different location each year. The grant is used to pay for the cost of services, birth certificates, IDs, lunch for guests, supplies, venue rental and much more.
What does the process look like? MHDC researches Point-in-Time count data, poverty rate information, population size, service provider availability (or lack of) and community leadership for a specific area. After determining need and viability, MHDC works with community leaders to bring together a group of local stakeholders. The planning process begins in January and continues through the day of the event, typically held in the fall.
After seven years in seven different cities, serving over 1,500 individuals (see Figure 1), we continuously look for ways to tailor the PHC model to increase the positive impact of this event. It takes committed leadership, political engagement, interested service providers and a willingness to learn about the unique barriers facing rural homeless Missourians. Many communities step up to the challenge and, as a result, four of the seven communities continue to host annual events modeled on PHC.
MHDC utilizes a planning toolkit (available to all Missouri communities) to help guide the process. A local committee meets each month to work through details. The committee is led by a chairperson (MHDC staff), with local community coordinating person(s) leading the effort in their community. Subcommittees are formed so people can focus on different planning details based on their strengths; they focus on finding service providers, a large network of volunteers, child care professionals to provide free child care, and sponsors and donors to secure both in-kind and monetary donations. The toolkit includes helpful guides for each of these subgroups to give them a solid foundation for decision-making.
The most rewarding part of this planning process is challenging new committees to expand the impact in their communities. The national focus on Housing First and Rapid Rehousing implementation has prompted us to find ways to incorporate these strategies into our events.
In 2015, Hannibal became the first rural community in northeast Missouri to set up a process before the PHC event for those who were literally homeless to gain access to housing. MHDC worked with the community to give priority to those with the most severe needs, leveraged other funding sources to maximize the $10,000 grant and developed a plan to place individuals into housing within two weeks of the PHC event.
Before the event, the subgroup that was focused on the housing triage effort lined up hotel/motel rooms, housing units and case management professionals. They set aside $2,500 from the PHC grant and looked for ways to maximize funding with other sources in the community. The group received a $3,000 community foundation grant. With funds from the PHC grant, existing grant programs in the area, and the community foundation grant, they were able to raise about $5,500 to move nine households into housing and jump-start funding for future events.
Following the PHC event, community organizations that traditionally work independently realized the impact that coordinating efforts have on the entire area. Community partners have a better understanding of what other organizations do and how, through collaboration of resources, to maximize assistance to people who are homeless. Eight months after the PHC event in Hannibal, seven clients are still in the housing provided during the event.
“The impact Project Homeless Connect had in our community is two-sided,” Dr. LeAndra Bridgeman of Northeast Community Action Agency said. “In addition to providing needed services and housing to homeless community members, this event brought social service and medical agencies closer and was a catalyst for interagency collaboration.”
After the event is over, planning committees must find a way to move forward without the $10,000 grant. Most continue to secure donations and sponsorships from organizations within the community. Other benefits include an increased awareness of homelessness, success stories from volunteers and a better understanding of how to collect data to show impact. The community uses the momentum of the experience to plan the next event.
The 2016 PHC host city is West Plains in South Central Missouri. With a high sheltered and unsheltered homeless population, the challenges will likely be different than those in Hannibal. The funding landscape is different and so is the number of people waiting for affordable, safe and decent housing. MHDC will utilize the initial grant and find ways to engage community sponsors to advance the housing triage model to help those in immediate need of housing. And, as in all other PHC host cities, the committee will be challenged to find ways to build a reserve fund to make this an ongoing, sustainable resource for West Plains.
For communities working to end homelessness in rural Missouri, PHC is a tool that brings organizations together, allows them to work toward a common goal and improve quality of life for their vulnerable neighbors. Beginning to define community can be an initially intimidating task, but once all the layers are examined and a group of passionate organizations come together with a common goal, the definition begins to write itself. Each community puzzles together funding, volunteer engagement and service providers to create a successful event. It takes more than people gathering in one place; it takes determination. Get involved by volunteering at or donating to a local event near you. If an event doesn’t already exist, MHDC is happy to discuss strategies to engage stakeholders to begin the planning process.
To learn more about ongoing initiatives in Missouri communities, please visit www.endhomelessnessmo.org.