Being Rural in the CoC Competition

Written by Zach Brown, West Virginia Balance of State Continuum of Care

This post is part of a series to support communities as they complete their 2018 NOFA applications. You can see previous entries here, here, here, and here.

The Continuum of Care (CoC) competition is a bit like John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Though everyone loves the song (especially West Virginians), closer examination reveals that a few things don’t quite fit. The Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River barely glance into West Virginia. Neither the song’s writers nor John Denver had ever visited our state before penning the tune (perhaps explaining the inaccuracies).

Likewise, not every CoC application requirement perfectly fits every community. That can feel especially true in the collaborative application for a rural or Balance of State CoC.

But with enough craft, it can still be a hit for your community. It’s critical to approach the NOFA process as an opportunity to improve your system’s performance.

Same Problem, Different Challenges

Urban and rural areas fall on opposite sides of the spectrum of challenges in ending homelessness. Broadly, cities face the issue of high volume, while rural areas confront large geographies.

But both must address a lack of housing. Access to either system can be difficult for people experiencing homelessness for similar or very disparate reasons.

One uncooperative Public Housing Authority (PHA) in an urban area can affect the CoC application process, while many Balance of State and rural CoCs can have tens or hundreds of PHAs with divergent views on their roles in ending homelessness.

Both also face obstacles to claiming“100% street outreach coverage” in their NOFA application. Urban CoCs may not have enough street outreach. Rural CoCs might travel hours just to perform street outreach at all.

‘Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are’ — Teddy Roosevelt

Despite the obstacles, a collaborative applicant must explain, as clearly as possible, that the CoC has challenges and is working to address them:

  • Highlight progress: Even if you can show progress with only two PHAs, take credit for that work. And strive to boost that number to five PHAs next year.
  • Support success: Highlight the one Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) that is making the best use of federal funds to house chronically homeless veterans. Take pride in the one shelter that is using diversion in its daily practice. Showcase where you’re succeeding.

It’s a Big World Out There

You will only understand the successes and complexities of your CoC by hitting the “country roads” and spending ample time in the communities.

  • Build enough travel money into your budgets for visiting communities, assessing their resources, cultivating organizations, meeting businesses, conducting outreach, and talking with people with current or previous experiences of homelessness. Maximize your time while you’re there.
  • Identify partners and connect with a potential new governance board member, a PHA, or the VAMC or Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in the area.
  • Plan an overnight stay so that you can learn more about the community and, in turn, the community can put a face and name to your organization and its work.

The better you understand the communities, the more effectively you can make system improvements. That ultimately will translate into more competitive NOFA applications in the future.

Try Not to Despair

Rural barriers can be overwhelming. You may face issues with agency capacity, cultural impediments, limited (often uneven) resources, municipal ordinances criminalizing homelessness, and deaths and overdoses from substance use. Sometimes doing our best means housing people quickly and keeping them alive long enough for the remaining support structures to catch up.

But, if we can articulate our challenges, leverage our resources, extend our successes, and make a commitment to better understanding our communities, we can build better systems. And if we can make a lifelong impact among the people we serve under these circumstances, imagine what we can do under the best circumstances.

To paraphrase John Denver, that sounds like “almost heaven.”