PREVENTING HOMELESSNESS: ANOTHER BISSELL CENTRE INNOVATION

by | POSTED: Jul 29, 2015

In November 2011 I received a call from a colleague about a woman with a disabled son who was facing imminent eviction. A single mother, she had built a small cleaning business so she could work her own hours and be home for her son when he came home from school. A number of circumstances impacted her income: the loss of one client, another who did not pay her, and unexpected repairs to her van. She had to get her van fixed but this put her behind in her rent. She was recovering financially but too far behind to address her arrears.

“The Community Bridge is one example of how Bissell Centre is trying to end homelessness. In this case, we strive to prevent it. The human benefits are obvious but it also benefits the rest of us to have fewer people living on the street and in shelters.”

My colleague told me that this single working mothershe was denied assistance from the government. He tried to appeal to officials high up in the Alberta Government at the time, but the government refused to help. This incensed me. The woman had no other supports and if she lost her home, she would be on the street and at risk of losing her son.

The next day I happened to be speaking alongside a board member to the Edmonton Presbytery of the United Church. At that meeting I shared the woman’s story and announced I was creating a small fund (called the Bridge Fund) to help this woman and others who had nowhere else to turn for assistance.

I explained I was launching the fund with $500 of my own money. My board member committed $2,500. I informed our United Church friends that from November until the end of January, 25% of any funds coming to us from the church, its many congregations and groups, would be directed to this fund. By the end of January we had $10,000.

We assisted the woman. She had saved enough for rent, but had no damage deposit. She knew she needed to move; her place was too expensive. We provided a damage deposit and sent a staff person alongside two of our casual workers to move her into a better, more affordable home. It cost approximately $1,200 to help her and it saved her and her son from being homeless. This initial expense also saved our safety net systems significantly more money than  it would have cost to support a newly homeless family.

We continued to provide what assistance we could to those who needed our help as a last resort and over the course of a year were able to stop the evictions of a couple of dozen people. I had to add some more money over the course of the year. We provided this help without any dedicated staffing in addition to current activities. No one funded it other than our donors.

During the course of providing this help, I began talking with others about needing a more structured service like this. Over the course of eight months or so, the conversations I was having with individuals grew to a group conversation that included representatives from EPCOR, the Homeless Commission, the Edmonton Social Planning Council, Canadian Red Cross, Alberta/NWT Region, Edmonton Apartment Association, Stollery Charitable Foundation, United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, and the Edmonton Community Foundation.

Thanks to a small grant from the Homeless Commission, we contracted a consultant to assist us in the development of a design brief for what is currently known as the Community Bridge. We outlined the project design, detailed purpose, objectives, and services to be provided by the program, which I am pleased to share with you:

“The Community Bridge is a rapid response intervention that stops an imminent eviction and provides interventions/services purposed to ensure that causes of the eviction are effectively addressed in order to ward off reoccurrence.

 “The interventions are multi-faceted but include funds that can be accessed, when required, to pay delinquent rent, utilities, or other costs that, if not addressed, will cause eviction to take place. The use of such funds is not, however, the answer by itself.”

 “Along with the funds, rapid interventions that address ongoing housing, income or employment and other contributing factors are required more often than not in order to sustain housing after the eviction has been stopped.”

 “In effect, when dollars are provided they serve as the foundation of a bridge through an immediate cash crisis. The money provides time for further interventions and assistance to help the individual/family make the necessary adjustments or changes required to increase financial stability and maintain their accommodation permanently.”

Our design of this prototype purposefully did not call for a predetermined set of limits regarding how we might support a client, how often, and so forth. We simply started with the goal of preventing evictions. We did not, and still do not, have a set ceiling on how much money we will provide to an individual or family. We do not limit our help to just one time. We want low barriers to the service in order to understand the range and complexity of issues people experience and then be free to respond in whatever way is necessary.

The design brief and further discussions resulted in the Community Bridge prototype receiving strong funding commitments from Stollery Charitable Foundation, Edmonton Community Foundation, the Homeless Commission, and the United Way. On April 1, 2014 we began to design the implementation of the prototype, and then began helping clients in July, 2014.  The program relied on the funding of one staff person and a “loan fund” to draw on. To further our impact, we formed partnerships with groups like the Edmonton Mennonite Centre and Bent Arrow Healing Society so that we could help clients of theirs.

We have just completed one year of the prototype and we provided services to 110 cases consisting of 266 individuals, half of whom were children. To be clear, this means that 266 individuals were not evicted and forced to go to shelters or live on the street.

Not everyone who requested support from the Community Bridge needed emergency funds. In fact, for every ten cases that required financial assistance, another seven helped to avoid eviction through our knowledge of systems and ability to help clients access existing emergency supports.

Our evaluation of the Community Bridge includes one month and three month follow up visits with individuals to assess their well-being and the longevity of the program. Sometimes, we have challenges connecting with clients. Many lack phones or have pay as you go phones, which they do not always have the funds required to operate. Many are working or active away from the home. Currently approximately one-third of clients fall into this category. However, of the remaining 70 cases where follow up protocols took place, 14 clients had been evicted (20%). Conversely, this means 80% had retained their housing. We hope to track these cases over a long period of time as the program goes forward, funding allowing.

We are currently working with our funders to plan for the future. Currently it costs $900 per individual helped, which is far less than the costs of supporting a person who has lost their home. It is cost-effective for landlords too, given that on average it costs a landlord $2,500 to evict a family.

Beyond the evident cost savings, the Community Bridge offers individuals and their families the opportunity to avoid the physical and emotional toll of eviction. When evicted, a family loses everything: furniture, clothing, valued possessions, security… everything. Preventing another child from living through this traumatic experience is invaluable.

One man we helped avoid eviction would have been sent back to prison; having accommodation was a condition of his parole. Had he become homeless he would have been returned to jail for one year – the cost: $110,000.

More people can benefit from this kind of help. Our plan to grow this service will also see the per case costs go from $900 per case to approximately $650 per case while the cost savings to society go up.

This is one example of how Bissell Centre is trying to end homelessness. In the case of the Community Bridge, we strive to prevent it. The human benefits are obvious but it also benefits the rest of us to have fewer people living on the street and in shelters.

If this work speaks to you and you want to support our efforts, please consider donating to Bissell Centre.  Each year we generate one third of our income through philanthropic donations. Without the support of our generous and committed donors, we could not do all that we do.

Thank you.

Mark Holmgren, CEO