DC government restarts referrals for housing, focusing on people at high-risk for COVID-19

Photo of a green tent with a bike next to it a busy road on a passageway in front of a busy road in D.C.

A tent on the streets of Northwest D.C. Photo by Roel Wijnants / Flickr

The D.C. government’s main method of matching people experiencing homelessness with housing providers was put back into use last month. People in the high-risk groups for COVID-19 who were previously given the opportunity to self-isolate in hotel rooms are now being prioritized for housing assistance.

In March, due to the pandemic, D.C.’s Department of Human Services (DHS) paused the Coordinated Assessment and Housing Placement (CAHP) program because the process relied heavily on in-person meetings. There were conversations then about prioritizing individuals for housing who are at higher risk for COVID-19, but the shift was finalized in May, according to Adam Rocap, who co-chairs the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness working group focused on  CAHP for single individuals. There is a separate system for families

[Read more: While DHS works to shelter and quarantine homeless residents, housing referrals have been put on hold]

While housing matches were not taking place, DHS contracted local hotels to provide rooms for people experiencing homelessness who tested positive for the coronavirus and had nowhere to self-quarantine. Rooms were also made available for people deemed by the CDC to be especially vulnerable to the virus, due to causes like old age or chronic illness.

[Read more: As shelter residents test positive for coronavirus, DC provides hotel rooms for isolation]

Starting May 4, CAHP began making housing matches again, focusing first on the people now sheltering in hotels due to the pandemic. This prioritization was decided because this group is more vulnerable and can be easily located and assisted at the hotels, where case managers are also working on-site, according Rocap. 

Eric Schneider, CAHP coordinator, said the program has altered its approach to account for the pause on in-person meetings, continuing to make matches through alternative methods such as online resources and digging into the backlog of cases. While those in the hotel rooms and isolation sites are being prioritized at the moment, they are not the only people supported by the program. 

As of June 17, these sites were housing 85 people coming from shelters or no housing, according to data from DHS. As many as 354 people experiencing homelessness were isolated in hotels in early May.

“We’re going to continue to listen to the science and that’s what’s going to dictate how long we’re doing these practices,” Schneider said. “In reality, they’re not a ton different [than the practices we used before the pandemic]. We’re just kind of honing our focus more on the people that we can definitely locate and definitely progress through this process.”

CAHP is not alone in modifying its match process to cope with the public health emergency. The system relies on outreach workers and other nonprofit service providers to assess individuals’ housing needs and submit them to its database. Many of these organizations have similarly paused or changed their methods during the health crisis. CAHP leadership continues to meet via biweekly calls to discuss how to move forward. But fewer people are being matched than before the pandemic due to a lack of housing assessments. 

Approximately 55 D.C. residents have been matched with housing since the pandemic started. To compare, CAHP reported 1,033 total matches in the 2018 fiscal year. 

Friendship Place, an organization that both assesses individuals’ housing needs and runs several housing programs that CAHP feeds into, has been successful in conducting socially-distanced assessment meetings over the phone. Despite some success, however, the need to socially distance caused their monthly number of assessments to drop by about 60 – 70 %, according to Sean Read, the organization’s chief community solutions officer.  

“It is much easier to come to a single location where you can get it done as opposed to trying to figure out, do [they have] enough minutes on [their] phone? Do [they] have enough battery on [their] phone? Do [they] even have a phone?” Read said. 

N Street Village, a group that empowers and provides services to homeless and low-income women, is another organization that is part of the continuum of care providing housing to those matched through CAHP. According to Schroeder Stribling, its CEO, the organization has been able to continue finding housing for those who were already in its pipeline before COVID.

Stribling, who is also a service provider representative on the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said that halting and adjusting CAHP during this pandemic has allowed the ICH to understand problems with the program and ways that changes made and lessons learned during this time can be useful even after the pandemic. 

“We try to limit the assessment process and number of forms to fill out, but it’s hard. It can be a lengthy process, it can be an intrusive process, and it can be a frustrating process,” Stribling said. “In this time, we have learned how to do things like verify in different ways and not have people pass through as many hoops.”

CAHP and DHS usually re-evaluate their program and possible next steps in August or September before the new fiscal year. The agencies will likely decide then whether to move into the next phase of reopening by starting to place other groups with housing, according to Rocap.

“The reopening of the homeless services system will follow the reopening of D.C. overall. As cases are declining, as testing is more available, as the hospital capacity increases, D.C. will reopen,” Rocap said. “Many of the people experiencing homelessness are vulnerable populations, so it’s important for us to be extra careful. Expanded testing and things like that are going to get us closer to the new normal.”

Read said CAHP’s restarting was a sign of progress towards the goal of finding housing for D.C.’s most vulnerable population, but the gains it had made are dependent on a continued successful reopening. 

“I’m hopeful that things will start to kind of pick up again,” Read said, “as long as the reopening phases of the district continue to progress in a positive way.”

Issues |COVID-19|Health, Physical|Housing|Rapid Rehousing

Region |Washington DC

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