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Assessing the impact of Riverwood's Housing First program
By Katie Murray / January 3, 2018 /   Loading Disqus...

With sustained frigid temperatures across the region, leaders and frontline staff at organizations across Rhode Island are courageously working to provide shelter, safety, and warmth for individuals without homes. Among them is Riverwood Mental Health Services.

For more than a decade, Riverwood  – which merged with the Kent Center last year – has tackled the challenge of ending chronic homelessness through its Housing First Rhode Island program. Chronic homelessness is defined as one episode of homelessness lasting a year, or four episodes within three years with a combined length of at least one year. Individuals at risk of chronic homelessness often experience the additional challenges of medical issues, substance abuse, mental illness, and isolation, making them among the most vulnerable in our communities.

Based on the premise that providing permanent supportive housing is the essential first step to end chronic homelessness, Housing First has proven that individuals are more likely to obtain services, accept mental health and substance abuse counseling, and develop the motivation to make positive change in their lives after they are successfully housed. The Housing First model originated in New York in 1992 and has since been replicated in hundreds of communities around the country with great success, reducing the number of chronically homeless by 27% between 2007 and 2016.

In 2010 the US Interagency Council on Homelessness adopted Housing First as an evidence-based model for housing the chronically homeless in its Opening Doors strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. In 2012 Rhode Island adopted the model as part of its strategic plan, Opening Doors Rhode Island.

To understand the impact of Housing First locally, Riverwood Mental Health Services commissioned an external evaluation of its program in 2013. Led by researchers from Providence College and Brown University, the evaluation included an analysis of program and client-level data provided by Riverwood to assess a number of factors including the program’s success in promoting long-term housing stability and the associated cost savings.

As noted in the final evaluation report, “[t]he most important measure of the success of a Housing First program like [Riverwood’s] is its ability to retain members in housing.” On this measure alone Riverwood demonstrated great success with a housing retention rate of 95% after 12 months. Financial analyses revealed annual cost savings of $8,000-$10,000 per client. These savings resulted from avoided high-cost services such as emergency department visits, hospital stays, and overnights in homeless shelters.

Since the time that researchers completed their evaluation, the organization has continued to track key measures.  According to Daniel Kubas-Meyer, President and CEO, housing retention rates remain high even two and three years after enrolling, at 85% and 83% respectively. These statistics are similar to national rates of quality Housing First programs. The program has also successfully connected clients with stable sources of income, helped to reunify clients with communities of family and friends, and provided specialized support for those with histories of substance abuse or incarceration.

The housing retention data are invaluable to understand and describe program success and are also used by Riverwood leadership to inform continued improvements. While the 83% retention rate is impressive and consistent with national standards of quality programs, it indicates that about one in six Housing First Rhode Island clients do not succeed in the program and ultimately return to the streets. Riverwood has prioritized this issue and is collaborating with other housing and service providers to understand barriers to success and ways to effectively identify, support, and house particularly vulnerable individuals.

With co-funding from the Grace K. and Wesley S. Alpert Charitable Foundation, the Rhode Island Foundation has invested nearly $1 million dollars in Riverwood’s Housing First program through the years, adding to support from other foundations, corporations, the state, and Housing First’s largest supporter, the federal government.

Housing First has had a tremendous impact on how the homeless crisis is viewed and addressed both nationally and locally. In Rhode Island, hundreds of formerly chronically homeless have been housed. With Rhode Island’s Strategic Plan to End Homelessness, released in 2012, permanent supportive housing is seen as the primary solution to end chronic homelessness and Housing First is a firmly established leader in this work.

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