Dozens of homeless families call the Dane County Housing Crisis Hotline each night to find somewhere to sleep. Many end up at the Salvation Army, a large room with mattresses lined up on the floor. There is no privacy, the lights stay on all night, and visitors must carry belongings with them and leave early the next day. But at least families can remain together. When warming houses like the Salvation Army fill up, parents must leave their kids at the Respite Center, which admits children only, and then find space at adult shelters on their own.
“Separating adds anxiety to an already stressful situation, but sometimes it is the best option a family can find,” says Kristin Rucinski, Executive Director of The Road Home, a Madison-based nonprofit focused on alleviating homelessness that also acts as an overflow shelter.
Over 50 congregations partner with The Road Home to create a network of shelters and 1,800 volunteers support the network’s operations each year. While temporary shelter is vital to the immediate well-being of families, The Road Home is also dedicated to getting them into housing arrangements that enable them to focus on longer-term goals, such as finding permanent employment or access to healthcare. “They come to the shelters in ‘crisis mode’ each time. It is not easy to solve other issues from this place,” says Kristin.
The Road Home operates eight separate programs, each offering different types of support, and several are partnerships with other organizations.
Rapid Rehousing, their fastest growing program, provides families with small rental subsidies and case management services for a year.
Housing & Hope is a permanent housing program with affordable rent and on-site case management services.
Other programs, such as Housing Stabilization, offer continuing support services to ensure families’ successes after they’ve moved into their own permanent housing.
In the past, homelessness alleviation efforts favored families who service providers believed had proved themselves to be responsible, but many organizations now view reliable housing as a necessary foundation from which to address other problems and not as a reward for good behavior. “We are seeing a shift from ‘Housing Ready’ to ‘Housing First,’” says Kristin.
As a result, service providers now start with the families who need help most. The Road Home, like many national programs, relies on a questionnaire called the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), which helps identify the most vulnerable families based on medical and social risk factors. Depending on the results, families could be eligible for one of The Road Home’s programs. But there are waiting lists.
After The Road Home accepts families into programs, the organization still must find affordable housing units and landlords willing to work with them. Around 20 families are on the Rapid Rehousing waiting list at any given time. There is a significant shortage of housing at all budget levels in the Madison area (the vacancy rate is 2 percent while around 7 percent is considered normal) but the shortage is especially significant in the lower price ranges. The average two-bedroom apartment in the area is now $1,000 and out of reach for the families The Road Home serves.
“Our families are working hourly jobs. At the very most, some might make $1,400 a month. Many make around $600, and some make nothing. When you add in utilities, transportation, and food, their wages would not provide them their basic needs,” says Kristin.
The Road Home looks for units near a bus line or school and in places where families can get to a grocery store without having to take two or three different buses. But these ideals are rarely attainable in the current market.
Presumably, people who can afford higher rents will move from cheaper housing into the newest buildings, creating vacancies in more affordable units. But this will happen gradually, and the full impact won’t be seen for several years.
The Road Home owns the 30 units devoted to Housing & Hope, but given those placements are permanent by nature, there are usually no openings and, therefore, no waiting list. “If a unit does open up, we’d consider the families with the highest scores on the VI-SPDAT first,” says Kristin.
Finding vacant housing is often the biggest challenge. Once families are in housing, The Road Home has a network of support in place to keep them there. Case managers regularly meet with families to help with anything ranging from resumes and interview preparations to finding health services or setting educational goals.
The daughter of one Housing & Hope family recently celebrated her high school graduation. “I don’t think that would have been possible without the program,” says Kristin. Both parents had held the same jobs for several years, but they had trouble managing their income because it varied seasonally. A case manager helped them set budgets and plan ahead for changes in income. They’ve been in the same home for four years.
“When families first arrive, their faces are full of stress and the kids are bouncing off the walls. It’s incredible when they come back to say ‘hi’ months later, and they walk in with a confidence they didn’t have before,” says Kristen. Some families feel compelled to give to the organization that gave to them by serving on The Road Home’s Board of Directors or by volunteering.
In 2014, The Road Home served 162 families (including 377 children) with a staff of 14 full-time employees and 4 part-time employees. “The more housing we have, the more families we can help,” says Kristin. “More affordable housing is the real solution for creating lasting change in these families’ lives.”
Contact the Dane County Housing Crisis Hotline at (855) 510-2323. For more information on The Road Home’s programs, attend the 11th Annual Homes for Families Breakfast happening on November 5. For more information on how to donate, visit TRHome.org.
Cara Lombardo is a writer and a CPA.