Carol-Regina Ramsey, a mother of three, was working as a certified nursing assistant when she became ill. Living paycheck to paycheck, she suddenly found herself unable to earn an income.
“I fell behind on rent and my bills,” Ramsey explained. “I got help to pay off some of it, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. I went through an eviction process, my landlord took me to court, and I ended up going into shelter with my three children.”
Ramsey’s story does have a happy ending, but could she and her children have avoided shelter in the first place? Whenever possible, instead of waiting for a family to become homeless to take action, the Center for Human Development (CHD) works to prevent homelessness before it happens using a strategy called homelessness diversion, a program funded through the Department of Housing and Community Development.
With diversion, CHD could have mediated the conversation between Ramsey and her landlord to find an outcome that would keep her family housed and her kids in familiar schools while she received appropriate care so she could return to work and self-sufficiency.
“I didn’t know about CHD initially,” said Ramsey, “but I wish I had. When I was in shelter, I went in and met with a CHD stabilization worker who helped me. I was told I needed to find a job and locate an apartment that I could handle. It took several months, but that’s what I did every day while my kids were in school. My health was still an issue, so I was in and out of work.”
Jane Banks, program director, Homeless Services for CHD, got to know Ramsey during meetings with her stabilization worker and recognized her potential.
“Jane Banks said to me, ‘you’re very well-spoken; how would you like to work with us?’” Ramsey said. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me. She told me, ‘if you make it, you make it, but I want you to try.’ I will never forget that.”
Ramsey applied for an opening, went through the standard hiring process, and got a job working at CHD’s Capital Drive facility in West Springfield. She does cleaning and housekeeping, filing, tracking and ordering supplies, and logistical tasks.
According to Banks, whenever possible, CHD hires individuals with lived experience, in addition to other necessary job credentials. “Working with someone who’s been there and moved on successfully shows our clients how a family’s situation with homelessness should be and can be temporary,” she said. “Diversion is about keeping people out of shelter and getting them stabilized so they can become self-sufficient more quickly and more successfully.”
Diversion especially makes sense considering that more than 13,000 individuals in families — 60% of them children — experience homelessness in Massachusetts on any given night. Under state law, homeless families with children are guaranteed shelter, but diversion can help make a move into shelter unnecessary.
The value of this idea was recently bolstered with the release of a new research study, “The Growing Challenge of Family Homelessness: Homeless Assistance for Families in Massachusetts, Trends in Use FY2008-FY2016,” conducted by Westat and released by the Boston Foundation. Among its findings, the study revealed that the number of families who sought shelter in Massachusetts more than doubled in the past nine years, but in the past two years the number of new entrants to the homeless system, as well as returns to shelter, have declined. Those numbers may be declining, in part, as a result of an increased emphasis on keeping families out of shelter in the first place.
“The idea is that it’s less costly and potentially more effective to prevent homelessness before it happens than to address it once it happens,” said Banks. “Diversion is always less expensive than shelter.”