Homeless school liaisons identify many school-age children who are unsheltered, doubled up, or living in precarious housing situations with their families. Many are unknown to the homeless service providers in the community although they are already homeless or are at risk of becoming literally homeless with little notice. A partnership formed by the homeless service system in DeKalb County and the school system is facilitating families’ access to services to help families find and stabilize in new housing while promoting children’s educational outcomes.
The DeKalb Kids Home Collaborative is a successful partnership forged between homeless service providers, the school system, and an employment service provider to help children avoid or quickly escape homelessness. The partnership emerged after school leaders and homeless service providers came together to help a mother and son struggling with homelessness. Their collaborative effort helped the family escape homelessness and inspired the providers to develop a formal partnership.
Today, the DeKalb Kids Home Collaborative continues to leverage each partner’s expertise and resources to serve families and school-age children struggling with homelessness and housing instability in DeKalb County. Since 2010, the Collaborative has rapidly re-housed 318 families, most of the families referred to the Collaborative by the homeless school liaison. The partnership allows families to receive blended, coordinated services to promote housing and education stability while improving families’ economic security by helping parents connect to employment.
The Kids Home Collaborative is made up of four partners:
- Project Community Connections, Inc. (PCCI)
- Decatur Cooperative Ministry (DCM)
- First Step Staffing
- DeKalb County School System
DeKalb County School System
The primary role of public schools is to make sure that school age children are receiving a quality education. The homeless school liaison in the DeKalb County School System is responsible for identifying school-age children in homeless shelter programs, as well as children who are unsheltered or in doubled-up situations, to ensure that they have ready access to school and the support they need to succeed academically. Homeless school liaisons also work to ensure that children are able to stay connected to their school of origin, a right afforded to homeless children under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Decatur Cooperative Ministry (DCM)
DCM provides emergency shelter and transitional housing to families in Decatur County. The emergency shelter offers a minimum of 30 nights of shelter (with extensions possible as needed). In addition to shelter, the program offers transportation assistance, employment counseling and a support group. Families in the transitional housing program reside in single-family houses and apartments throughout the County. Services offered include case management, counseling, financial management classes, and computer training opportunities. Families typically stay in the transitional housing program six months.
Project Community Connections Inc. (PCCI)
PCCI is a nonprofit organization providing housing counseling and rapid re-housing services to individuals and families in DeKalb County. The agency conducts a thorough housing assessment to inform the development of a housing plan for each of the households they serve. Based on the assessment, the agency provides housing counseling services, housing search assistance, landlord negotiation, short-term rental assistance, utility assistance, and follow-up case management services to help individuals and families achieve housing stability.
First Step Staffing (First Step)
First Step is a temporary employment agency that is dedicated to helping people experiencing homelessness find and maintain stable employment. The program helps connect people to temporary jobs that will ultimately lead to permanent employment. First Step also helps homeless people connect to benefits they may be eligible to receive, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and Medicaid. The organization’s mission is to help eradicate homelessness by helping people earn a sustainable income.
Kids Home Collaborative
The partnership leverages the expertise and resources that each organization provides. The homeless school liaison, who works to ensure that children without homes remain connected to school, is the primary source of referrals to the Kids Home Collaborative.
The school liaison has been trained in the eligibility requirements of the local homeless service providers, including the shelter and transitional housing programs operated by DCM and the rapid re-housing program operated by PCCI. Each day, the homeless school liaison receives an update about available shelter resources. She uses this information to connect families in greatest need to shelter programs. Families in the shelter program receive case management services to help them address significant housing barriers and attain a stable source of income.
Parents in need of employment are quickly connected to First Step Staffing. The organization provides assistance with resume writing, job search assistance, and linkages to training programs. The organization also focuses on helping homeless individuals find temporary employment as a “first step” toward permanent employment outcomes. Temporary employment can provide an immediate infusion of income into the household budget.
Families typically have a stable source of income and have addressed their major barriers to housing before being referred for rapid re-housing services. Two-thirds of the families referred to the Kids Collaborative by the homeless school liaison are referred directly to PCCI for rapid re-housing, bypassing a shelter stay altogether. PCCI can assist some households with hotel and/or motel expenses for one to two weeks until the family can secure new housing.
PCCI develops a housing plan for families enrolled in the Kids Home Collaborative. Because they receive referrals from the homeless school liaison and not just homeless shelter providers, they work with families both inside and outside of the formal homeless service system. The relationship with the school significantly broadens the base of referrals PCCI receives. It also helps them reach families who are vulnerable to entering the emergency shelter program, including families who are doubled up with other households, residing in motels, or in other precarious situations. Often these families require only a little bit of help to get back into housing they can afford to escape those situations, and avoid a shelter episode altogether.
PCCI provides a housing counselor to each family. The housing counselor helps the family develop a budget, find housing, and negotiate with landlords. The program provides limited financial assistance (e.g. security deposit, short term rental assistance and utility assistance). PCCI provides follow-up case management services to clients for six months after placement in permanent housing to promote housing retention and address any issues that might arise.
The members of the Kids Home Collaborative formalized their partnership through developing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which specifies what each agency will provide to families under the Collaborative and how the organizations will work with one another. A Governing Committee made up of representatives of each of the organization oversees their collective work. The Governing Committee has the authority to develop budgets and make decisions for the group. The Governing Committee also works to improve the functioning of the Collaborative and how the organizations work together through regular communication and problem-solving (or “barrier-busting” activities).
The Kids Home Collaborative leaders also work together to ensure that families are receiving the services they require from each of the partnering agencies. The leaders work to streamline and improve the services families receive to make it as seamless for the families as possible. They also seek to identify families’ unmet needs so that they can work to address them. It was through this process that the Kids Home Collaborative expanded to include an employment partner.
Lessons Learned on Building a Partnership – PCCI Perspective
- Make sure the right people are at the planning table. There is often a lack of understanding about how one another’s services work that has to be clarified before building a successful partnership. Cross-training has been critical as partnership members represent organizations with different missions and often very different vocabularies. Cross-training has also been very helpful in ensuring that providers are referring families to interventions they are eligible for and that will meet their needs. This reduces time and frustration for both frontline workers and families.
- The planning process was critical for building the trust necessary for the partnership to be successful. Going through the design process (with the help of an outside facilitator) and exploring possible partnership options helped build buy-in and a true sense of ownership among all the partnering organizations. Ultimately, the process of working together to develop a shared framework and common vision may be more important to replicate than the actual final partnership model the Kids Collaborative adopted. It also helped ensure that all partner members were on the same page regarding the intent of the Collaborative and what they are trying to achieve together.
- While relationship building and trust is critical to the functioning of the Collaborative, it was also necessary to develop a formal MOU outlining the responsibilities and roles of each partnering organization. The Collaborative fundraises as a separate entity and has obligations to funders that need to be met.
- It was helpful to brand the work of the Collaborative to educate stakeholders in the community about what the Kids Collaborative is trying to accomplish. It was also very helpful for fundraising purposes. It appears that funders are very attracted to the idea of supporting organizations working together to streamline services for children and families. Collaborative partners also found that addressing school and housing together to be particularly effective and attractive to funders who hadn’t supported the individual organization’s work before.