“We’re in a Competition Against Homelessness.”

August 18, 2023

One of Roof Above’s solutions to end homelessness is the Unsheltered Housing Navigation Team, located at the Day Services Center (DSC). Danielle and Leon were hired to create this team in the spring. When asked to describe what they do, Danielle says, “We’re housing navigators for people who frequent the DSC. We’re working with people who do not have shelter, who do not have a safe place to stay the night, on the entire process for getting into housing.”  

Roof Above’s DSC is the front door to housing services. Unsheltered guests can get their basic needs met, including laundry, mail, lunch, a warm shower. In addition, they can utilize the resource center for bus passes, food-bank referrals and to get started on their path to housing. 

Sometimes, these people are waiting for a bed to open at the shelter. Other times, for a myriad of reasons, a shelter stay is not an option. They may have extenuating circumstances, like a mental-health diagnosis that makes it difficult to stay in communal-living spaces. There is a Sheltered Housing Navigation Team for people utilizing Roof Above’s shelters.

Often, the people served by the Unsheltered Housing Navigation Team at DSC start the housing process with disadvantages. Danielle says, “They’re carrying all of their stuff on their backs. We’re working with them on trying to get all their documents together because they don’t have a safe place to store their documents.”

In addition to gathering and safely storing personal documents, Danielle and Leon provide assistance with finding employment, sourcing available housing, applying for housing with applications and fees, and when someone’s application is accepted, helping them move into their new home. 

Unsheltered housing navigation requires flexibility. Part of their time is spent driving around the city, talking to landlords and employers. Leon says, “There are no normal days. It’s about building relationships on both sides, with the client and with the community, and then trying to fuse that together.” 

Communicating with clients is a frequent challenge. Leon says, “People may not have a cell phone. People may be incarcerated. They may be in the hospital. They may be in a chemical dependency center.” 

Danielle adds, “Sometimes we utilize Outreach because I’ll work with someone for a week or two, and then they just disappear for three or four weeks.” Roof Above’s Outreach Team is out in the community, engaging with unsheltered people, providing resources and helping them find housing. 

They have other creative solutions to navigate unreliable communication. Danielle says, “We try to use the mail system. They’re also always welcome to come see us every time they’re here [at DSC]. And if they happen to miss us or we can’t catch them, we’ll put a slip in the mail saying, ‘We need to meet with you.’” 

Leon and Danielle have 27 and 29 clients on their current caseloads, respectively. This doesn’t include the people who are referred to them daily by Neighbor Support Specialists. Danielle says, “We pick up [the referrals] each morning, and then we either call the person or leave a letter in their mailbox, inviting them to come and talk to us. Most of those people aren’t added to our caseload. It’s more like giving them some next steps to work on.” They estimate that they receive 5 referrals every day, so that’s often 25 people to reach out to each week, in addition to the neighbors they are regularly working with. 

Another challenge to housing unsheltered neighbors is money. Danielle says, “We want to be able to move people in, and we only have so much money to help with moving fees. A housing-application fee can be anywhere from $10 to $75, depending on the apartment. For the most part, the person is going on a waitlist, so you want to try to put in as many applications as possible. But that gets really expensive.” 

She continues, “Also, the neighbors, they don’t have a lot of money. There’s only so much affordable housing in the community. Most of our neighbors only have disability income, which is about $800 – 900 a month. That’s not even enough to qualify for most tax-credit properties.” 

There is some income-based housing, where rent is calculated based on 30 percent of someone’s income, but Leon says, “They have waitlists that are four or five years long.” 

Faced with such daunting challenges, Danielle and Leon find bright spots that keep them showing up for the neighbors. Leon says, “The first guy I ever placed in a transitional living house, he cried. He said, ‘Man, these are tears of joy,’ and I felt that over the phone. When you build relationships with these people and they know that you care for them and you are working hard for them, it makes their lives just a little bit better, gives them just a little bit more hope.” 

Danielle adds, “Whenever the Social Security card comes in the mail, or getting their ID, it’s a win. The small wins make it.” 

Leon and Danielle are making a difference in big ways too. Dilligard says, “We did the job fair, and we had 46 people signing up for jobs and really wanting to invest in themselves.” 

Danielle says, “We also did a housing blitz. We brought in property managers. We filled out applications, and we helped 40 people enroll on the Inlivian website so they can get vouchers for housing. We also had a list of affordable housing with shorter waitlists.” They estimate close to 60 people participated in the housing blitz. 

If they could wave a magic wand to make a wish come true, this duo agreed it would be for more affordable housing. Leon says, “It would be building affordable housing communities that give people the same sense of accomplishment as when I come home. To have nice amenities.”  

Danielle says, “Going along with that, I would also want to change polices because I know, in other areas, you can’t discriminate against someone with a housing voucher or based on where their income comes from.” 

Leon has another wish for people to open their hearts a little bit more. “I really don’t think people see the struggles that they go through: not feeling safe; not having a home to go to; just the small amenities, like turning on a light; to have your family in one place; to watch a game whenever you want.”  

Ultimately, Danielle and Leon measure success by the number of people they help house. 

Leon says, “We’re not in competition with each other. But we are in competition against homelessness. We care for people. That’s why we’re here.”