As service providers, we are advocates for our participants. We relish the opportunity to stand up for the people who have been ignored or pushed down by our system. Through our support, we promote their ability to access housing, public benefits, or other community resources. But, we can find ourselves in a bind when we’re forced to serve a dual role—advocate and rule-enforcer. This is the position that many service providers end up in at single-site housing programs. In these programs, the service agency typically manages a property, acting as a landlord or property manager to its tenants, and provides case management to them at the same time.
Ideally, Housing First programs will separate housing and case management roles. This is easier in programs that use a scattered-site approach, housing participants in buildings with independent landlords throughout the community and providing case managers for them. One case manager in a single-site program articulates this by saying, “The difference is if I worked at scattered-site, if there was an issue it would be the landlord going to the participant or the case worker, saying, ‘This is the problem that I’m having’ and it’s up to us to advocate for them, instead of me working both roles.” When we end up working both roles, it discourages our participants and residents from feeling safe enough to approach staff when they’re struggling. Think about it, if you were having trouble making rent payments or having problems in your apartment, the last person you’d want to talk about it with is your landlord. Instead, you might hope that they just don’t notice you.
This is a major pitfall of some Housing First programs. Housing First is not a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to housing services. We will fall short in our efforts to assist them if we aren’t aware of the problems our participants are having and engaging with them about it. We want our participants to feel safe approaching us and talking through their difficulties related to keeping their housing. The more open they are about that, the better equipped we are to assist them with strategizing and avoiding serious consequences like eviction. We can’t expect our participants to feel comfortable approaching us when they see us as the key holder to their apartment. Case managers should be tasked with helping participants with avoiding lease violations, managing them when they happen, and advocating with property managers on their behalf. In the event of an eviction, the scattered-site model also provides greater flexibility to keep the person engaged in services and work to rehouse them.
This doesn’t mean that scattered-site is the only effective way to house our participants. There are benefits to other models like single-site, communal living, and recovery housing that include having a community of peer support on hand. Housing agencies that use single-site can still separate housing and case management by designating specific staff to handle those issues. There are also ways that the Housing First approach can be used in these models by paying attention to other aspects of the model. For example, those programs might still incorporate a Low Threshold Admissions Policy or provide flexibility in the services people use. But, setting up our programs so that case managers aren’t required to also serve as overseer of a property encourages participants to open up and share honestly about themselves.
We were excited to read this NPR article earlier this month, which details HUD's new guidance for landlords and home sellers who conduct criminal background checks on applicants.
HUD asserts that although there are some situations where it makes sense to deny access to your housing based on criminal record, blanket policies may in fact be discriminatory. In this assertion, they recognize that our criminal-legal system has inherent disparities in arrest and conviction, disproportionately affecting people of color. Although African-Americans make up about 12% of the U.S. population, they account for 36% of our prison population. African-American men are imprisoned at a rate nearly six times that of white men. Obviously, that system needs to be addressed in its own right. However, it is groundbreaking for HUD to instruct landlords to recognize this and to shift their own policies to adjust for this disparity.
Being homeless puts people in a position where they are more likely to have contact with the police. This added contact means that many of the people we serve end up with extensive criminal backgrounds including charges like trespassing, retail theft, and possession of controlled substances. Their rap sheets are used as justification for issuing more harsh penalties and compound the difficulties they have seeking housing. The prevalence of criminal backgrounds is not just a problem among people experiencing homelessness. As the article asserts, one in four Americans have a criminal background. Frequently, background checks uncover arrests that did not lead to a conviction. This puts people into a system that asserts they’re only innocent until accused. In addition, historical incidents come up in background checks that don't reflect who our participants currently are and what they are doing with their lives. These old convictions should not continue to impact someone's life when they have already served their time, but they do.
In Housing First programs, we should view landlords as partners. Many of the landlords who partner with our agencies to house our participants see themselves as doing more than just managing a property and collecting rent. They are community members too and a vital part of helping to end homelessness. As providers, we have an opportunity to connect with landlords and advocate for alternatives to blanket policies of denying people with criminal backgrounds. HUD suggests that "landlords should have a policy that takes into consideration what the crime was and when it happened, as well as other factors, to reduce the discriminatory impact." We applaud this guidance and it gives us hope for our case managers to have an easier time locating affordable and decent housing for the people we work with.