Helping a client to become housed is a process with many steps. Housing Specialist Bobbi Jo Evans shares her approach to helping clients to help themselves through the process. She addresses common hurdles that you might encounter and offers suggestions for supporting your client through the process.
I am the Housing Specialist for Harbor Health Services, a community behavioral health agency in Branford, Connecticut. When individuals contact me, they often hope I can provide them with an apartment that meets their budget and their needs. They are usually in desperate situations, living on the streets, in their vehicles, at motels or in overcrowded situations with friends or family. In our service area in Connecticut, we do not have shelters or transitional housing. This creates the problem of having no immediate shelter for people who are homeless or at risk for homelessness. We often end up referring them to shelters or respite centers out of the area, taking them away from their familiar environment. To avoid this, I work hard to help people find housing. There are many steps in the housing process. My approach is to help a client go through these steps with success by providing education and the necessary tools, from start to finish. Often, this involves other resources and services, such as Vocational Services or Case Management. It always involves providing support and guidance and helping clients to help themselves.
Differentiating Between Wants vs. Needs
One of the first steps that a client must take is to recognize the difference between their wants and their needs. Many who want a one-bedroom apartment will often realize that a studio apartment will serve their needs. The size of the apartment plays a large role in the ease of locating a unit or even applying for low-income housing. There is not only a difference in the monthly rent, but also in the cost of electric and heating charges.
In addition, many low income or subsidized housing projects will only consider single individuals for efficiencies and reserve one-bedroom units for couples. The desire for amenities like a washer/dryer or dishwasher may also make it more difficult for a client to become successfully housed. It is important to have a frank discussion with your clients to understand why they want certain amenities. If possible, work with them to find alternative solutions.
Addressing Income Issues
A property may require that the applicant’s income be at least three times the monthly rent. This is a legal requirement (as long as it is applied to all applicants). If your client is only receiving the base Social Security amount, these apartments may not be an option. Educate your client on considering units rented by private landlords who may not have a minimum income requirement. You can also discuss the possibility of working with Vocational Services for assistance with employment and Case Management for budgeting. Utilizing all available services will provide additional support for your client.
Addressing Credit and Criminal History Issues
A spotted credit report or a criminal record can be a barrier that brings the housing search to a halt. Everyone has his or her own idea, or fear, of what a credit report might show. Many think their credit is horrendous when actually they have very little being reported, or no credit at all. It is very important to educate your clients about their credit report. You can help them to obtain a free credit report at an online site like annualcreditreport.com. I recommend sitting down with your client to review the report. Encourage them to make payment arrangements on unpaid utilities and to correct any discrepancies. Landlords focus mainly on evictions and unpaid utilities, which reflect a prospective tenant’s ability to pay and maintain rent.
The same process needs to be followed for anyone with a criminal history. Help your client to obtain police records and ensure that the information is accurate. Landlords will pay particular attention to crimes that involve larceny, arson, violence, weapons, or narcotics charges. If any criminal charges are inaccurate, work with your client to obtain court documentation showing charges with “nolle.” A nolle indicates that the court has dropped charges, but they may still show as active in a police report. A client on probation or parole should obtain letters of support from their assigned officers. If the client is in treatment, they should obtain letters of support from clinicians.
Searching for an Apartment
One of the most important aspects of helping a client find housing is to encourage the client to take the initiative to start the search. In rural areas, housing is scarce and often expensive. A housing coordinator may know landlords who offer low rents and will readily accept an agency’s clients, but these landlords may not have an apartment available when a client needs one. Encourage your client to read the newspapers and check on-line listings. I also suggest that clients walk or ride through the neighborhoods they want to live in to look for “For Rent” signs.
I believe that if a client takes an active role in the search process, the apartment will feel more valuable for him or her at the end of the search. As a provider, my role is to work closely to educate each client on the steps involved in the search process and to provide support on a daily basis.
Prepping to Meet the Landlord
Meeting a landlord can be a very stressful event for a client. Many people are nervous at the prospect of having to meet a stranger. To help prepare your clients, I recommend staging mock scenarios. You or another staff member can play the role of the landlord and pose questions that a landlord may ask. As you role-play the scenario, help coach and educate the client on how best to respond. It is important to support your client and help make him or her feel at ease throughout the process. Tell them that you will be at their side during the actual meeting with the landlord.
When you meet with the landlord, ensure that your client comes to the meeting prepared with documentation of past rental payments, letters of support from previous landlords, and character references, if possible.
Understanding the Purpose of a Security Deposit
Once your client receives word that a landlord has accepted his application, you need to address the issue of the security deposit. It is important to educate your client that the security deposit is a guarantee to the landlord that the apartment will not be damaged. It is generally not used toward unpaid rent. Upon move in, the landlord and client should do an apartment inspection to document any preexisting damage to the unit. Photographs should also be taken and copies given to the client, the landlord, and placed in the client’s file. Your objective is to make every effort to ensure that if the client moves out, the landlord cannot charge the client for damage that existed prior to your client’s move-in date.
Reviewing the Lease
Be sure to sit down with your client and review the lease. Pay close attention to sections on the payment of rent, alteration of the apartment, lease violations, and rules involving guests and pets. It is important to ensure that the lease indicates who is responsible for paying for the utilities. If there are any additional charges, such as parking or air conditioner use, they must be listed as an addendum. Encourage your client to ask questions so that there is clarity around the responsibilities of both the landlord and the tenant.
Adjusting to a New Home
For someone who has been homeless for an extended period, it may be unsettling to suddenly find himself alone in a space that is all his own. Your client may have difficulty accepting the apartment and the concept of being responsible for the unit. They may also find it difficult to commit to furnishing the apartment and settling in. They may not even have the necessary items for their apartment, such as furniture, bathroom and kitchen essentials, or lighting.
It is crucial to work with your client to ensure a successful transition. Allow your client time to adjust to his new home. It is important to offer support and guidance. Support may come in the form of follow-up visits to check on the client or assisting him with selecting furniture or accessories. You can also provide guidance with helping the client to make rent payments for the first few months, until they become familiar with the process. Being there for him during the transition to his new environment will help to ensure a long and healthy stay in his new permanent home.