In 2002, New York City's Department for Homeless Services (DHS) was in a crisis situation, with an average monthly census of 33,000 homeless people in shelters. The city could not open new shelters fast enough to meet rising demand and families were sleeping on the floors of the department's Emergency Assistance Unit while they awaited placement.
To solve this problem, newly appointed Commissioner of the DHS Linda Gibbs had a novel suggestion. New York City already had an elaborate system of data collection about the origins and characteristics of homeless shelter applicants. If that data could be used to target at-risk families before they became homeless, pressure would be taken off of the overcrowded shelters, and fewer children and families would go through the stress of losing their homes.
Gibbs' advocacy led to the creation of HomeBase in 2004, a neighborhood-based program that provides personalized assistance to families at risk of homelessness. Collaboration with other community agencies allows HomeBase to identify individuals and families at risk and provide them with whatever is needed to retain existing homes. Those served by HomeBase have received clothes for job interviews, funding for training to earn higher wages, and mediation services for disputes with family members or landlords.
HomeBase also provides more traditional services-such as legal help, childcare referrals, education and employment services, and mental health care-to families whose housing future is uncertain, even if they are not yet homeless. The program partners with organizations to advertise its homelessness-prevention services to the families who need them most. For example, the HomeBase provider in Brooklyn teamed up with Baby Buggy, a non-profit that provides baby clothing and supplies to low-income mothers.
Early interventions and nontraditional, individualized help have kept many families off the streets and out of shelters. In its first full year of operation, HomeBase communities saw a 12 percent decline in family shelter entrants. In the first quarter of 2006, communities served by HomeBase experienced a 7 percent decline in families seeking relief at shelters-while New York City as a whole saw a 19 percent increase.
HomeBase continually evolves, incorporating the best practices from other agencies and experimenting with new ways to serve at-risk families. The program's adaptability makes it easy to replicate; though New York City has extensive systems of data collection to track patterns of homelessness, many cities across the country collect large amounts of data about homeless residents. HomeBase provides a welcome example of the type of prevention services that can be provided using such data.