At Housing Families First, we are proud to offer families experiencing homelessness services that are truly low barrier. “Low barrier. What does that even mean?” you might ask.
A low-barrier program, such as our Hilliard House shelter, is free from as many requirements as possible that might deter or exclude a family from participating. All rules are stripped down to health and safety considerations. Low barrier shelters do not have curfews, nor do they require background checks, employment or savings, chores, or mandatory attendance at meals or workshops. Our experienced, professional staff follow a harm reduction approach that does not require sobriety or mandatory treatment. In short, a low-barrier program honors the dignity of each family, treating them as experts on their own needs and equal partners with program staff in finding solutions to meet their needs.
I began working with families experiencing homelessness in 2001, and I have seen the seismic shift away from strict curfews, mandatory classes, and dismissals from shelter due to incomplete chores. Like so many colleagues who have worked in homeless services, I was anxious when we began our shift to this new low barrier model, which is deemed a best practice by experts. No curfews? No mandatory dinner attendance? Continued focus on housing, even if someone is still struggling with addiction?
It turns out that when parents are treated as competent adults who are the experts on their family’s day-to-day lives, even as they struggle with individual challenges, they rise to the occasion. No longer do we, as staff and program participants, waste valuable time talking about why someone was an hour late to curfew or why a family didn’t eat dinner or sit through a weekly class. We have a laser-like focus on housing and the next steps to secure it.
Does this approach work flawlessly for every family? No. Does every family make the same choices I think I would make in the same situation? No. Does the approach result in the vast majority of families successfully moving into – and maintaining – permanent housing? Yes.
Since Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos awarded the inaugural grants from their Day One Families Fund to 24 organizations, including Housing Families First, many funders and philanthropists have puzzled at the grantor’s short application process and hands off management approach. Vox dedicated an entire article to it in a recent Recode publication.
While Day One requires grant updates at least annually, there is only one primary restriction on how funds can be used – to provide housing and related services for homeless families with children. No lengthy quarterly reports. No matching fund requirements. No mandatory meetings. Is there a chance that an organization might use funds unwisely? Yes. Will grantees like Housing Families First use the funds differently than the leaders of the Day One Families Fund might expect? Very likely. Is there a good chance that new, creative solutions in ending family homelessness emerge as a result of the grants? YES.
In many ways, the Day One Families Fund is adopting a low barrier approach to grant-making. The staff of individual agencies are being treated as competent professionals who are experts in carrying out their day-to-day programs. Requirements that are not mission-critical have been stripped away. What will happen as a result of this “low barrier” grant-making approach? Stayed tuned to learn more about the impact the Day One funding has made on families here in Richmond, and homeless services as a whole.
Written by: Beth Vann-Turnbull. Beth is Executive Director of Housing Families First.