MHA Homeless Housing Team Leverages Community Resources to Get People Housed and Keep Them Housed

“This is not easy work,” said Dave Havens, Program Director of Homeless Services for MHA. “It’s not work meant for everybody. You can’t give up on these folks and ‘no’ isn’t an option. Our role is straightforward: to help people get housed and stay housed. MHA has a variety of person-centric, need-specific programs, and each of them applies the principles of Housing First to ensure that all people have access to safe and affordable housing, regardless of their individual challenges.”

In their daily roles, members of the Homeless Housing team are unsung heroes who exhibit tenacity and perseverance to address chronic homelessness among Springfield’s most marginalized populations. It’s a multi-faceted team that also includes people with Association Property Group, a for-profit subsidiary of MHA, Inc., which works with landlords to negotiate leases and ensure that apartments meet housing quality standards.

Havens explained that HUD funding for housing comes to Hampden County via the City of Springfield through a system known as the Continuum of Care. This involves coordinated intake, which is an effort to match people to housing opportunities. “There’s a process where anybody in the homeless world can do a vulnerability assessment on someone, with their consent,” he said. “We learn if the individual has been a victim of crime, admitted to the hospital or visited the Emergency Room or ridden in an ambulance, been displaced by domestic violence, had interactions with police, suffers from mental illness or struggles with substance use, is trying to recover from trauma, and more. The information collected goes into a computer system and creates a rank order based on length of time homeless and level of vulnerability. Our team meets weekly to try to match people to homeless resources. We understand people’s nervousness about going into housing and help them get through the basic steps. For example, they may require a birth certificate, which is needed for a housing subsidy or to get a state-issued ID. A landlord is going to want to see a state-issued ID. Our work with the state Registry of Motor Vehicles resulted in an update to the ID application form that recognizes a homeless person may not have an address.”

Once people have a safe place to live, the emphasis shifts to preventing further homelessness. “MHA has specialized outreach supports for individuals with mental health challenges,” said Havens. “We’re trying to reduce the number of people who are chronically homeless and have a disability. Our goal is always Net Zero, where we’re able to house more people than there are new people coming in. It’s a community goal with the City of Springfield in the leadership role and a lot of agency partners including MHA working to take people from homeless to home.”

MHA currently works with about 60 people who are in permanent housing. “We have ongoing efforts to help these people stay in housing,” said Havens. “There are basically three things they need to do to keep their place: pay the rent, don’t disturb the neighbors and keep their place clean. A lot of the support MHA provides is around helping people to manage that. If people do have to move, we help to give them a soft landing aligned with lessons learned in the process.”

Havens explained that MHA applies the Housing First model, which emphasizes barrier-free housing without roadblocks to getting housed. “In the history of homeless housing, it used to be that people had to be judged ‘ready’ for housing. Service providers would erect ‘barriers’ or challenges that people would need to meet to qualify, such as proving they had a job for six months or had been sober for a year, before they’d let a person into the program. Imagine how hard it can be to accomplish those things if you’re homeless! Being homeless is exhausting. Beyond finding something to eat, people are constantly trying to manage danger and not become a victim. It’s worse at night, and even worse when it’s cold. Assuming they make it through the night, they have to wake up and do it all over again. Someone in that position isn’t focused on ‘How do I get over to the substance abuse program today’ or ‘What time is my appointment at the health clinic.’ They’re focused on staying alive. The Housing First model says everyone is ready for housing and asks what supports they need to get into housing and stay there. It’s much easier to work on recovery or mental health or job training or education when you have a place to live. Get the housing done first, and with some appropriate supports, people are much better able to get back on their feet and stay housed.”

According to Havens, in the past four months, 15 individuals who were chronically homeless have been housed through MHA. “Seven of them came off the street where they’d been living in a car, a doorway, a tent, a park, the woods or on the riverfront,” he explained. “Eight others came from shelters. Ninety five percent of the people we get housed remain housed. That’s an impressive percentage and the result of an impressive team of people. It’s not easy work, but we don’t give up on people.”

Not giving up requires creative thinking that builds linkages in the community. Havens and his team have developed partnerships with local Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) to find housing solutions when persons who are homeless find themselves in the Emergency Room. “We work with staff at local hospitals to help high-utilization individuals in their care go from Emergency Department discharge directly into housing. This is important because many times people end up in the Emergency Room due to conditions such as dehydration, exposure, trench foot, pneumonia or personal injury, which are largely preventable when people have a safe place to live. Housing is preventive care.”

A number of the innovations utilized in addressing homelessness across the nation were pioneered by MHA. One example is the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), a groundbreaking approach homelessness prevention. TPP works with individuals and families receiving a housing subsidy and facing eviction because of behaviors related to a disability, such as mental illness, developmental disability, substance use or age-related impairments. TPP consults with the housing courts and functions as a neutral party between the tenant and the landlord to keep people housed. Since the 1980s when the TPP concept was founded jointly by the Western Division Housing Court and MHA, it has expanded to Housing Courts throughout the state, where it has helped preserve many thousands of tenancies over the years. A new initiative, TPP Upstream, provides a similar intervention prior to court involvement.

“The folks at MHA who do this work have amazing personal dedication to finding ways to solve problems so that people get housed,” said Havens. “You really have to believe in the work to keep doing it day to day. As we work for people to have better lives, there are lots of bumps in the road. It takes a lot of effort and compassion to be able to stay hopeful—for yourself, for other team members and for the people we’re working to get into housing. People may have their moments of doubt but they turn them around into moments of hope. Together, we stay hopeful for housing.”

About MHA: 

What We Do

MHA (Mental Health Association) helps people live their best life. We provide access to therapies for emotional health and wellness; services for substance use recovery, developmental disabilities and acquired brain injury; services for housing and residential programming, and more. With respect, integrity and compassion, MHA provides each individual served through person-driven programming to foster independence, community engagement, wellness and recovery.

Why We Matter 

The youth, adults, seniors and families we serve want the same things in life as anyone:  to have friends, work, go to school, have meaningful relationships, express themselves (and be heard), and be accepted in their community for who they are. With our help and resources from a caring community, people can live their potential, in their community, every day.  

How We Think 

Starting in the 1960s, MHA’s groundbreaking efforts and advocacy helped to transition people away from institutional living to a life in our community. This became a model for the deinstitutionalization movement. Today, our leadership continues to advance awareness of mental health conditions and needs at local, regional and national levels. We drive compassionate care for those challenged by mental health, developmental disabilities, substance use, homelessness, acquired brain injury and more.