Carson Dean would like to see his job disappear.
“Although I happen to have the largest shelter in North Carolina, I’m also the biggest advocate for not having a shelter,” says Dean, executive director of Men’s Shelter of Charlotte. Dean and his staff recently formalized a diversionary approach to helping individuals find housing that they had been practicing for a couple of years
The idea behind diversion is straightforward: Specialists, chosen for good listening and creative problem-solving skills, work with individuals who are experiencing homelessness or are on the verge of becoming homeless by helping them find immediate alternate housing arrangements. Ideally, this keeps the individuals from having to enter a shelter at all. But that does not mean just finding them a couch to stay on temporarily; instead, it involves using intake assessments to brainstorm alternatives with the many men who come to the shelter. That might mean focusing on a passing comment about having a mother or a cousin who owns a home and has room for them, for example.
“Most of it was family reunification work,” says Dean. “We were finding that a lot of these are men in their 40s and 50s were able to move in with their mothers, who are in their 70s and own houses they couldn’t take care of anymore. It became a really good living arrangement for everyone—imagine the positive emotional and psychological impact of that reunification.” One such mother-son pair had not spoken in more than 25 years, but neither could recall why.
Although Men’s Shelter of Charlotte—which will serve close to 1,600 men this year alone at two shelters with a combined 400 beds—has been using the approach successfully for some time, an official diversion initiative launched March 30. Dean says the goal is to divert as many as 20% of the men who would otherwise be staying in the shelter from ever doing so. He would like to see more; although the three part-time diversion specialists on staff are able to provide services seven days a week, they are only able to cover 40 hours total, given budgetary limitations. The challenge, says Dean, is proving to funders that the approach is getting measurable results and that it is sustainable.
Diversion is not unique to Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, which is also a coordinated assessment site; programs around the country are using it. Dean says his staff spent time studying how the approach was being used in Cleveland, Ohio, in particular. Some communities perform diversion in locations other than emergency shelters, although they remain the most logical venue.
“This is a powerful tool for emergency shelters to help drive the solution of ending homelessness,” says Dean, adding that the cost of each diversion at his shelters is only about $130 and that, from a mental health perspective, the outcomes are incalculable. “We can still provide emergency crisis services to people without having to think, ‘The first thing to do is put them in a shelter and make sure they have a safe place to sleep tonight, and then worry about everything else.’ Because, too often, once we let somebody in to shelter, then the mindset is they’re safe, and there’s less urgency to try and do something to solve the issue with them.” He does want both community members and program participants to understand that it is not a prevention program—that they cannot decide they do not like the housing that has been worked out and then ask Dean and his staff to find an alternative.
Not long ago, a man with two small children came to the shelter, which does not take in anyone under age 18. The standard approach would have been to find somewhere else for the kids and let the man stay there, but the staff talked to him, brainstorming alternatives. Eventually he mentioned that one of his sons played youth football, and that maybe the coach could help. When contacted, the coach immediately reached out to team parents, who pooled enough money to allow the father to stay in a hotel for a week or so—with his children—giving him time to sort things out. They never needed to use a shelter, and the family was never split up.
“Most of the time, people need just a little bit of time to think things through and then they’ll figure it out on their own. That’s what is so powerful,” says Dean.
Although follow-up has not been part of the diversion approach at Men’s Shelter of Charlotte to date, they are now incorporating a plan to check up on individuals through statewide Homeless Management Information Systems to see if they show up in other shelters. The hope is that, for the many men who have never been in the system, diversion will keep them from ever being a part of it. Dean says helping them overcome a short-term crisis will allow them to move on, and that he and his staff will—ideally—never hear from them again.
This article was originally published to highlight the June 2015 theme of Men’s Behavioral Health Conditions.
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