The phone begins to ring at 8:30 a.m. with calls from single mothers, fathers, sons, and a couple expecting a child. All are making one last effort to avoid eviction from their housing. With the help of over 25 faith organizations, businesses, and individuals, Porchlight is there for those who need it. The Dwelling Intervention Grants and Sustenance (DIGS) program receives these calls, aiming to prevent homelessness in the wake of a short-term financial emergency by providing counseling and small one-time grants of financial assistance. Reflecting on the work he has done for the past decade, Hasan Mohr says, “The best part is being able to come through for these people.”
Hasan has been the coordinator of DIGS since it’s inception in 1999. After working at Hospitality House as a resource specialist, he noticed the gap in services surrounding funding for security deposits and utilities. Through his work, he developed great relationships with many faith-based organizations and their missions to help those in need. It was then that he came up with the idea of starting this grassroots project. Unfortunately, no formal funding was available to support such a program. “That first year we were 100 percent funded by the faith communities,” Hasan explains. “We had a basic, one-page intake form, and it has remained one page for the past 17 years.”
Shantay had a home, a job, and stability. Then in 2016, she fled an abusive relationship, taking her three teenagers with her. In the beginning, she stayed at The Salvation Army, then The Road Home, then moved to the Domestic Abuse Intervention Services shelter. She searched for housing for her family, but found the rental rates in Madison unaffordable. She ended up bouncing from place to place with family and friends. She thought she was out of options until she met with DIGS staff, who assisted her when an affordable apartment became available in Porchlight housing. With help from the DIGS program, she was able to provide the security deposit and move her family into a new home. She has recently become a resident manager, which involves maintaining the housing property she lives at with three other families. Shantay explains, “I met Hasan years ago and he told me to give him a call if I needed help, and he did help me.”
In 2015, the DIGS program counseled 1,260 households and provided grants to 1,020 households in the Dane County area. DIGS kept 76 percent of those accessing services in their housing for 12 months and 72 percent at 18 months. Hasan is proud of DIGS success rate. “If not for DIGS, these people would have been evicted, out on the streets, or in the shelters using other limited resources.”
Approximately two-thirds of the households who accessed the DIGS program in 2015 were families. There is limited capacity in emergency shelter, and homelessness is incredibly disruptive and stressful for families, especially for children. It is disruptive to their education and maintenance of any otherwise healthy lifestyle. Hasan sees it as his mission to keep kids from sleeping on the street, or worse, in a home where they are in danger. United Way of Dane County strongly supports the DIGS program as it encourages providing housing stability to prevent downward spirals into homelessness with all of the debilitating consequences to the family and the children.
Preventing homelessness for these families is actually simpler and less expensive than one may imagine. With vacancy rates at less than 2 percent, Madison rental rates are really high. Estimates are that 40 to 50 percent of renter households pay more than 30 percent of their income as rent, creating a financially stressful situation for these households. Hasan describes the DIGS model, “Sometimes it’s just working with the landlords or the utility companies, getting them to give the families more time to pay.” If families are granted an extension, DIGS staff will counsel the family on how to budget and save for repayment. When landlords or utilities demand immediate payment, Porchlight works in partnership with St. John’s Lutheran Church to offer financial assistance.
“We use a self-matching technique where households have to provide some funds required to prevent eviction. Porchlight and St. John’s provide the other portion through a one-time grant of three hundred dollars or less,” says Hasan. The average grant for rental assistance is approximately $185, and for utility assistance, the average grant is $125.
For individuals and families who are already homeless, the DIGS program most commonly assists with first-month rent, but they also help with security deposits and utilities. Porchlight funding allows us to serve about 60 percent of the requests we receive each year. For the other 40 percent of people in need, DIGS staff work with them to figure out other options, but the resources are slim, especially for rental assistance. “If DIGS can’t help them, I connect them to places, such as Community Action Coalition and Joining Forces for Families,” says Hasan. These organizations also have a small amount of funding to assist in eviction prevention and move-in expenses.
DIGS is an excellent example of a program that provides a tremendous impact for each dollar spent. When the costs of family homelessness in terms of shelter, returning to housing, and impact on the family and the children are compared to the average grant of a couple hundred dollars, there is simply no question in the value of this program to the community.