Filling the gaps in homeless services

If the parents don’t have a home, there’s a very good chance their young children won’t either. And if the kids are homeless they are unlikely to do well in school.

No surprises there, but up until now the mix of private non-profits offering shelter in Fayette County were aimed at women with children or single adults, leaving two-parent families with few options. That’s about to change if, as expected, the Urban County Council Tuesday approves a pilot program for homeless families. The Community Action Council will carry out the project with funding from the city’s Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention.

This is exciting news: It will begin to address a real need in our community, and it demonstrates the intelligence of the city’s approach to homelessness.

As a government, Lexington’s efforts had been pretty much limited to grants made to outside agencies until the office was created to address homelessness. Rather than set up a new bureaucracy to provide services, local government chose to serve as a clearinghouse for information, a place to assess gaps in service and fund private groups with good proposals to address them.

Charlie Lanter, who was hired as the first director last year, told reporter Beth Musgrave that the scarcity of housing for two-parent homeless families is “the biggest gap in our system that I have seen.”

Lanter’s observation is borne out by data Musgrave reported earlier this year. Children in Fayette County classified as homeless under U.S Department of Education guidelines rose from 393 in 2011-12 to 795 last school year. The district has only $50,000 to address the special needs of those homeless students. Kentucky, Musgrave reported, has the highest incidence – five percent of total population – of homeless kids in the country.

With the need defined, Lanter and others from the city began meeting with shelter providers and advocates to sort out how to best serve homeless families. The city then issued a request for proposals and two groups responded. Lanter said the Community Action Council’s approach was both innovative and cost-effective. It involves placing families in a hotel for up to a week and then in a CAC apartment for up to three months while staff work to find permanent housing. That provides the families with immediate shelter but also gives them privacy they wouldn’t have in a group setting. If approved the pilot program will begin in early January and serve about 16 families a year at a cost of $100,000.

Lexington remains behind neighboring cities, including Louisville and Cincinnati, in providing help for homeless families. But this smart approach -- based on research and defined needs, involving private providers -- offers hope.