KANSAS CITY, Mo. – One of the city’s largest homeless service agencies is about to put in place the final building block of a restructuring that started almost two years ago.
By mid-November, reStart Inc., 918 E. Ninth St., expects to have completed a $2 million renovation of its overnight emergency shelter, according to Chief Executive Evelyn Craig.
There will be four-person units for 42 women and 48 men on two separate floors.
The goal, Craig said, is to get these individuals into housing as soon as possible.
No more, Craig said, will people stay overnight, leave for the day, and then have to line up again at the end of the day to get back in.
That’s a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t get at the roots of homelessness, she said.
“You don’t know them, you don’t assess them, so everybody gets a bed, everybody gets a meal,” Craig said. “That is the classic ‘don’t try to solve the problem.’ You just do this thing, and people have done it for years, but it doesn’t produce good outcomes, and we know that.”
Key to the new approach, she said, is a partnership with the behavioral health program at Truman Medical Centers, which will make available mental health professionals on site at the reStart facility.
The changes began in January 2012 with the family emergency shelter, Craig said. The organization moved families into apartments in a building next door, and reStart now allows families to stay for up to six months as opposed to 30 days.
Since then, she said, the agency has tripled the number of families it placed in permanent housing.
Last year, reStart served more than 16,000 people. More than half were children.
The move by reStart is in line with service changes suggested by Iain De Jong, a Canada-based consultant who spoke here Friday to an audience of about 75 people as part of a meeting of the local Homelessness Task Force.
He argued for a housing-first strategy, where the top priority is getting people off the streets and into a permanent location. Then, service providers give the people the support they need to stay in permanent housing.
The other tenet is to eliminate waiting lists, which he said sometimes include people with relatively minimal needs, and focus first on the sickest and hardest-to-serve individuals. These are the individuals that also are the most expensive, in terms of needing help from first-responders and getting treated in emergency rooms.
De Jong’s prescription is similar to the national 100,000 Homes campaign, which includes local advocates for the homeless.
De Jong said the new approach requires revamping the traditional homeless system, which typically aims to move people into permanent shelter incrementally and after job training or substance abuse treatment. Transitional housing arrangements often are included, which means it can take up to two years for a person to get back into a permanent residence.
De Jong said providers should eliminate transitional housing, since there is no evidence it makes the homeless any more ready for permanent housing.
He said the current system is too bureaucratic to effectively serve a homeless population that is dealing with fundamental needs, including looking for a place to stay one night to the next.
But altering an entrenched system is not quick or easy, said Jason Bohn, program manager of the Homelessness Task Force.
Officials had valid reasons for establishing the building blocks of the current system, he said.
For instance, transitional housing allowed agencies to own their own property that they could use continually to move people in once somebody was ready to move out.
One step that can be taken relatively quickly, Bohn said, is to do a better job gathering information about each homeless person. That would allow for a triage system, where officials could focus on the neediest first.
For instance, Bohn said, “If we have a chronic bed available, we don’t just give it to the first person. We have a list that says, ‘we know that David Johnson is our most challenged and vulnerable person.’ Then we — ‘we’ being the whole community — we try and find David Johnson and we put him in a house.”