Walk through the doors of the CARE Center and you’re greeted with a housing-first approach that prioritizes housing and basic necessities as the foundation for a life outside of homelessness. SVdP CARES Development team member, Mary Burns, sat down with Denis Sousa, the CARE Center Manager, who describes how St. Vincent de Paul CARES is revolutionizing the shelter model, from one that maintains homelessness, to one that is ending it.
So, walk me through what it looks like when someone that is homeless comes through the doors of the CARE Center shelter.
Well, I’m sure they’re greeted with a smile and some reassurance <Denis smiles>. Once someone checks in, they are paired with a “Navigator,” who helps get them ‘document ready’ through the intake process. Then a case manager sets forth expectations of a 28-day housing plan. All guests are active participants in their plans as well. We find that by participating, they are more invested, which makes for a more successful outcome in getting housed and staying housed.
What happens if it takes someone longer than 28 days to get housed?
It’s definitely a case-by-case basis, for sure. Depending on circumstances, the plan can be extended. For example, if they have a job and are saving money, then they are working towards a goal. Each person and plan is different, but everyone must be showing steps toward becoming housed.
You mention that each individual is different, but how are you able to know the severity of one’s homelessness and what can work best for them?
Good question. Think about it in terms of triage, where you have to assign different levels of need. We do this with the VI-SPDAT (Vee Spadat)
<Laughs> The Vulnerable Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool. It gives case managers an acuity score so that they are better able to place the individual in the right housing setting. The client is asked to report a number of risk factors including length of homelessness, various medical conditions, substance use, mental health, and daily functioning.
- 0-3: self-resolve with simple assistance. You identify housing and get them out the door. Those in this score don’t qualify for our Rapid Rehousing program, so our team uses community resources or diversion to get them housed. <referred to later in the interview>
- 4-8: this level qualifies them for the Rapid Re Housing program. At this point we would refer them to coordinated entry partners, like 2-1-1, who help connect individuals to housing and service interventions, like SVdP CARES.
- Above 8: anyone above 8 is more difficult to place as this refers to Permanent Supportive Housing, and unfortunately beds don’t become available as often. You typically see those with mental or physical issues within this level. The ‘barrier’ to this level are the resources, but we have been able to put together creative resources to get people housed, like partnering specific individuals with shared housing programs.
Honestly, it’s a lot about reading and understanding people. We are a low barrier shelter, and what others think may be a ‘barrier’ to housing, is actually a “symptom” of something else that can be treated once the individual is stably housed.
Denis began managing the CARE Center in March of 2020. He came to SVdP CARES with a wealth of experience and a master’s in psychology. At a time when most emergency shelters closed their doors, the CARE Center remained open, and to date (5/5/2021) has placed 131 households into housing- close to 25% of those permanently housed in Pinellas County. Denis attributes his team’s success to a ‘culture of communication’ between staff and CARE Center guests.
We’re in the business of caring for people…it’s in our name, ‘CARES.’ People in shelters can be the forgotten population…but here, they’re not forgotten anymore. I can look at everyone out there and know their story, because I get to know them, even if I’m not physically working with them. I tell my team-myself included-there should never be a face you don’t know. We have an amazing team, but it’s a smaller one at the CARE Center, with 20-30 individuals per case manager, so it’s all hands-on deck.
Do you have any strategies for this?
One thing I started is community lunches, where our team members eat and interact with overnight guests and those sharing a meal. You see a new face every day; you hear their stories, and sometimes you’re able to end their homelessness that day with just a phone call!
That’s part of the diversion program, correct? “Returning Home?”
You did your research😉. Yes, it’s something we started pushing for last spring, and it’s really taken off. We typically divert, on average, about 8-12 individuals per month. And it starts with a simple conversation: ‘Hi, you’re a new face, where are you from…Oh Bradenton. Why are you here? Do you have anyone there we can call?’ More times than not, we make the call and are able to buy them a bus ticket and send them home or to a relative…sometimes in-state, but many times out-of-state.
We had one man who had been homeless for over 5 years. I asked who he could call and he said no one. THEN I changed tactics… I asked if someone was in his same situation and they reached out to him, would he help? ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘My brother. But we haven’t spoken in years.’ We called him, and it turns out his brother had been looking for him! They cried, I cried, and he was on a bus to his brother’s the next day!
Wow. That’s amazing.
And many stories are like that! Look, we’re not here to fix people. We’re here to house people, and our team will get them the wrap-around services that they need once they’re housed. But the key is to be stably housed first. We have 70 shelter spaces, and if anyone’s goal does not involve housing, then the team will work on exit strategies to help the individual find something that works for them. You hear this a lot around here: ‘we’re a hand up, not a handout.’ And it’s true. We’re in the business of caring, and that’s what we do.
The St. Vincent de Paul CARES CARE Center is open to neighbors in need 7- days a week/365 days a year. It is the point of entry for homeless services and includes storage lockers, a shower program, and assistance in applying for jobs and benefits. For more information on the CARE Center or to learn ways you can help your neighbors in need, visit www.SVdP.CARE/contact-us.