How a Washtenaw County program is reducing homelessness for less than $100 per person

In the first three months of 2021, the Washtenaw Continuum of Care (CoC) used a new program to help 23 individuals and 13 families avoid homelessness. 

The average cost per individual was $73. Just one night in an emergency shelter would have cost about $85.
“We’re very excited,” says Andrew Kraemer, CoC data and evaluation specialist. Though the sample size was small, Kraemer says the data “shows tremendous promise.”

The new strategy uses diversion

Since January 2021, Housing Access for Washtenaw County (HAWC) and the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County (SAWC is a Washtenaw Health Initiative (WHI) member), have each dedicated one staff member to focus exclusively on diverting people from homelessness.

The diversion staff work with people on the verge of entering an emergency shelter to help them “problem solve places they could turn within their network, either friends or family or other community resources, where they could stay before they would reach the point of being homeless,” says Patrick Kelly, a senior analyst at the Center for Health and Research Transformation who has been working with community partners, on behalf of the Washtenaw Health Initiative, to improve the county’s homeless system of care.

“It’s a way to have a conversation and maybe utilize some financial resources in order to prevent them from needing emergency shelter,” says Amanda Carlisle, director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, also a WHI member organization.

Kate D’Alessio, program director at SAWC, describes a recent example. 

“Someone came to the front desk and said, ‘I’m trying to get back to Jackson. I have some family that I could stay with, but I got in a car accident and my car was totaled. So how can I get there?’” AWC provided bus tickets so the individual could bypass a shelter stay in Washtenaw County.

Of the 24 families that participated in diversion conversations during the first three months of the program, 54 percent were successfully diverted and none have returned to shelter. The average need for a family was $833. “That’s maybe a security deposit or move-in costs, something that a family is needing in order to prevent them from becoming homeless,” says Carlisle.

Of the 61 individuals in diversion conversations, 37 percent were successfully diverted and only five have returned to shelter. For individuals, transportation costs like gas cards or bus tickets have been the largest need. A close second is gift cards for groceries or other essentials that can reduce the burden on friends and family that individuals are staying with.

“In a lot of cases, our diversion workers are mediating between the person experiencing homelessness and the people they had previously been staying with or potentially could stay with, to smooth out conflicts, connect them to local community resources, or figure out a plan. A lot of people are receptive to the idea of [hosting an individual in need] if it’s just a temporary thing,” says Kraemer.

Diverting from shelter has so far required much less time than sheltering individuals — an average of four days to divert someone, versus an average of 137 days in 2020 to get someone housed once they enter the system.

From pilot program to community success

The current diversion program is funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. But it’s built on a pilot program that the Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT) organized, with funding from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, on behalf of the WHI’s State Innovation Model (SIM) systems change work in Livingston and Washtenaw Counties.

The pilot program began in 2019 as part of a large systems change project to improve the overall homeless response system in the county.

CHRT organized the pilot with four local organizations: Ozone House, a youth housing provider; SAWC, an emergency shelter provider; HAWC, an organization that coordinates housing needs; and Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, which oversees homeless street outreach and helped administer the pilot with the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development. Three of these are WHI member organizations. 

To begin, CHRT and the partners brought in the Cleveland Mediation Clinic, leaders in the field of homelessness diversion training, to train frontline workers and support staff.About 30 to 40 people attended each training, from the four pilot program agencies and other agencies in the homeless system of care. The pilot program agencies also received more intensive “train the trainer” instruction.

The result was a clearer plan for diversion

“At that time, we wanted to do as much diversion as possible, but we didn’t have the resources to fund a staff person to do it. So we were trying to embed diversion practices within every role in our system. But that’s not the approach that the trainers recommended,” says Carlisle.The reason embedding diversion doesn’t work is because it runs counter to the normal work of shelter staff. 

“We want to bring you in and figure out all your problems with the social worker,” says Kraemer of shelter staff work processes. “But diversion is about, okay, we’re going to stop. I need you to just focus on how to find you a place to sleep tonight. Not that we don’t want to serve you, but we think this is in your best interest, and you don’t want to be in shelter either.” 

“It doesn’t work great when you don’t have separate staff to do that,” Kraemer concludes.

When CARES Act funding arrived from the federal government, the partners were able to fund two new staff positions exclusively for diversion from January 2021 to fall 2022.

“Having one person who’s focused on it seems to be working more quickly. And we have other clients that hear about it and say, ‘Oh, you just have to talk to David and he can help you get to family or friends,’” says D’Alessio.

Respecting capabilities while offering support

At its root, diversion is about respecting each client’s ability to find his or her own solutions.

“A lot of the diversion work is born of the belief that most of our clients are capable of resolving their homelessness. It doesn’t mean they don’t have significant barriers and don’t need help, particularly because they’re trying to navigate a pretty complicated system in a county with high housing costs and competitive housing markets,” says Kraemer.

Diversion offers that help. And doing it as soon as a client arrives is essential “because we know that once folks enter the homeless system of care, it’s harder to get out,” says Carlisle.

There’s trauma associated with entering the homeless system of care, as well, even though staff work to prevent it. 
“Episodes of homelessness are traumatic, particularly when there are children involved,” adds Kraemer. “Anything that can be done to lessen that permanent state of stress and crisis is helpful.”

“It’s not that we don’t think our system is good,” Kraemer continues. “But it’s under-resourced and most people are better off not in the system. Unfortunately, most people will be able to resolve their homelessness faster if they’re not waiting for resources.”

In Washtenaw County, 300 people experienced homelessness this July. The average wait for housing in the county is around four months, but it varies widely. Because the system uses dynamic prioritization to serve the people with the highest needs first, “some [people with lower needs] will be waiting forever for a resource because we just don’t have enough,” says Kraemer. 
With diversion strategies, many of those 300 people will not need to be in the system so long, or at all.

Reliance on flexible funding

The diversion program is currently funded by CARES Act funding through the fall of 2022. Washtenaw CoC plans to continue the diversion program afterward if they can find funding. 

“It requires flexible, nimble funding to meet people’s needs quickly,” says Kraemer, because it’s difficult to gather extensive documentation in the few days that most diversions last.A challenge going forward will be finding a funder willing to accommodate that flexibility, especially since most funding is aimed at acute cases. Wanting control over the way money is spent is understandable for a funder, observes Kraemer. “It’s a case of being able to make the argument [for diversion],” which is why these early results are so important.Of course, diversion won’t work for every situation. “Some people are not going to be capable of being diverted,” Kraemer acknowledges. “And that’s why we have emergency shelters and other housing programs. But our goal is to have as few people as possible experience shelter.”