Wake County and The Partnership Streamline Housing  Search for Homeless

The unusual times we find ourselves currently living brought many issues to the surface. The COVID-19 global pandemic illuminated processes that worked well before the virus and those that failed to live up to the need. In the realm of homeless issues, one challenge already in the works was how to coordinate efforts from all organizations within the county for the most impact.

The House Wake! initiative to stabilize housing to help residents avoid evictions received a jumpstart when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and provided a more streamlined method to help our most vulnerable residents. The strategic plan for House Wake! is to minimize the effects of COVID-19 on homeless and precariously housed Wake County residents. To accomplish this project, the plan coordinates federal, state and local funding to move the maximum number of individuals possible to housing stability. The funds allowed both the newly established Access Hub and Housing Navigation Unit to fill a longstanding gap for residents in Wake County.

Coordinated Upgrade for Improved Access

Lorena McDowell, Director for Wake County Housing Affordability and Community Revitalization, noted the prior process to help the homeless or those about to be evicted made it difficult for service providers and their clients to achieve a successful outcome. She pointed out how the many dedicated partners worked hard to serve the community, but residents lacked a coordinated way to access appropriate services. That lack of coordination created bottlenecks to locating correct resources and produced an environment ill-suited for success. McDowell described how residents typically found themselves caught in a loop calling several agencies only to be referred to another source over and over, leading to anger and frustration for the client and for the provider trying to help.

With the revamped Access Hub, clients call one phone number, (919) 443-0096. The Access Hub team members who respond are highly trained individuals, assessing those in need and directing them to the proper resource, depending on the client’s specific situation. It is a coordinated effort to determine as effectively and efficiently as possible whether folks may need to go to a shelter, receive help through street outreach, the homeless prevention or rapid rehousing programs, permanent supportive housing, or other transitional housing assistance.

Lorena D. McDowell, MPNA
Director, Wake County Housing Affordability & Community

The design of the new Access Hub alleviates the cycle of overburdened providers and frustrated clients. “When you can have a team of individuals who exist to make everyone’s life easier, tell people correct resources faster, and gets them to those correct resources the first time so folks do not have to cycle through calling everyone, it helps unburden the system,” commented McDowell. “It gets folks to the right resource and gets things moving more quickly.”

Time for a Change

Across the board, roadblocks proved the system needed a way to coordinate and the global pandemic only compounded issues. Before the epidemic, agencies and organizations had their own way to proceed without a leader to take control and grab the reins. While trying to design a more coordinated effort, McDowell found it understandably difficult for agencies to provide housing referrals to a single resource or letting go of the little bit of control they have if they didn’t trust the entity coordinating it. This leadership opportunity is where the role of the Partnership evolved. “I think the Partnership has done a great job in recent times to create that environment of trust.” She highlighted the Partnership’s ability to build important relationships with the area’s nonprofit agencies. “It’s the entity that’s now built that trust and has the expertise behind it to ensure we’re creating programs that will help, not just residents, but also our nonprofits.”

Filling Major Gaps

Just like the Access Hub, the development of the Housing Navigation Unit filled a lingering need. Before the COVID-19 virus, the county and various agencies met with landlords separately to find suitable housing for clients. The high-level and consistent conversations weren’t happening to help landlords understand the populations served in this case were desirable. McDowell discussed how the conversation needed to turn on its head. Instead of asking landlords to please work with clients, the conversation needed to explain why landlords should work with the clients and also help them understand the benefits. “Just having that conversation and having a team that’s trained to flip that old conversation on its head and say there’s a partnership to be had here and there are great benefits to work with the folks that we serve.”

She acknowledged the importance of a well-managed database to accomplish this, as well. The Access Hub team understands which landlords are willing to work with the clients and what the barriers clients/residents may have that landlords are willing to assess. “These are important questions that if we don’t have easy access to the answers, we spend a lot of time spinning our wheels; instead of just calling this team and saying, I’ve got a client who’s a single mom, with one child, poor credit, and a misdemeanor criminal history, what do you have for me? And having that person say let me see if there are any vacancies right now and any landlords willing to work with this person.” The entire process moves more quickly, instead of calling all over the county and hearing no 20 times before finally locating that available unit.

Creative Incentives

In the thriving Triangle community, landlords and property managers can have their choice of renters. Because the vacancy rate is so low, landlords can require that applicants make three-times the rent, have perfect credit and no criminal history. It leaves little room for incentives to help those in a more uncertain housing situation.

The House Wake! initiative provides landlord mitigation funds to cover any damages and a case manager to handle problem renters instead of calling the police. For landlords hit hard by the eviction moratorium, the House Wake! money is guaranteed. McDowell said the success of these relationships means the County and the Partnership need to continue building and preserving these relationships with the community and also maintain consistency with the promises to the landlords and property managers. This means rent and bills will be paid on-time and repairs will be made. If a renter does not work out, that vacancy can be filled quickly. “It’s building those relationships, and it’s about being consistent and standing up for what we promise,” she added.

It’s Not a Quick Fix 

While the House Wake! initiative is taking giant steps in a more positive direction, McDowell cautioned this is not a quick fix for such a large-scale problem. “The House Wake! Access hub is fielding 2,000 calls or so a month. The Housing Navigation Team has been working really hard with landlords, but they have an uphill battle.” She noted, while it’s not an overnight fix, as the relationship building takes place, the landlords are listening. “Although I am always optimistic, don’t take my optimism for a quick fix. We should remain optimistic, but we should not expect any of this to be a quick fix.”

McDowell discussed how the COVID-19 virus also shined a light on how many people lost their jobs that never thought they would need assistance, and now need help. “No matter how comfortable we may get, things happen. A loss of a job, a death in the family, a sickness like COVID-19 and we can be on the other side of things really quickly. I think this may help folks be a little more compassionate and help people understand that we are all those people, and we may need help sometimes.”

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