Making Rapid Re-Housing the System Focus in Mercer County

written by Guest blogger, Marygrace Billek, Mercer County Department of Human Services

The advent of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act and the birth of rapid re-housing was a sea change for Mercer County NJ. Mercer was known throughout the state as the county that worked well together.

Ending homelessness was a challenge and a mission that the community and the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness chose to embrace. This was no easy feat, and required that we align on all things homelessness and housing. Moving from housing readiness thinking to a Housing First philosophy was a monumental task that took over a year to achieve.

Getting the right people involved

We met often, bringing in experts in homelessness — thank you to Dennis Culhane and the Alliance. We looked at other people’s data and then we started to look at our own. We found that it was useless. Our data didn’t tell us anything and the quality was terrible, but it was important to continue to forge ahead.

This required us to form a data quality committee that met biweekly. We also knew the value of having someone who understood what the data was saying and could interpret this for us, so we hired a data system monitor. After months of technical assistance, we began to have public reviews of the data that held everyone accountable to their own outcomes. Today New Jersey uses our data quality as a model process throughout the state.

Early on in the process, we brought all of the “funders” together. Everyone who had a dollar invested in ending homelessness was invited. Through those partnerships we developed the strategic plan that would allow us our current success. We met with the nonprofit executives and their boards of directors to talk about what the future of the system would look like (even though we weren’t exactly sure). We made sure our funders were on the same page, and then met weekly so the process wouldn’t get off track!

The work and time are worth it

If it sounds like realigning our system took a long time, and a lot of time, you would be right. For the first seven years of this initiative, I spent about one third of all my time working on each piece of this system change, along with about 20 other committed partners.

Without the constant focus and active participation of everyone in the system, we never would have gotten here. Anyone who has heard me speak about this knows, that it took a village, it took a therapist, there was a little bloodshed, and there were a lot of tears.

It took so long that some partners thought we were never going to make some of the changes we promised (like closing all of our family transitional housing units), but WE DID IT!

Today our system is right sized. Since 2012 not one family has met the definition for chronic homelessness. Our Point in Time reflects an average 71 percent reduction in homelessness. And every day, we help our partners continue to do the right thing, support them with the resources to continue to do the work, and listen to the challenges that remain in the way of achieving our goal.

My advice to anyone that is ready to  embrace rapid re-housing is to know what motivates your partners and align the philosophical (and financial) thinking of your funders, that and some serious hard work can get you where you want to be.