By Maureen Richey, CSG Justice Center Staff
As the leaders of Old Pueblo Community Services (OPCS) can attest, the landscape of housing and reentry services is never static. For this nonprofit organization that serves people at risk of homelessness in Pima County, Arizona, the communities they work in, their clients, funding streams, and research into best practices all evolve over time—and OPCS’ leaders recognize the importance of evolving along with that landscape.
Since 1996, OPCS—a 2014 Second Chance Act mentoring grantee based in Tucson—has been offering an array of reentry and housing services such as sober housing, affordable housing, substance use counseling, veterans’ services, and housing for men and women. Until recently, they offered housing as a reward for completing other milestones of reentry success, such as sobriety, education attainment, and employment. This approach to housing services rested on the notion that stability in other areas of one’s life would increase housing success. But new research into the role of housing as a baseline for success in other areas has led to a sea change in best practices and funding for homelessness prevention services.
To better align their housing approach with those evidence-based best practices, OPCS leadership decided to overhaul their programming by prioritizing Housing First and Permanent Supportive Housing interventions—which offer housing or housing assistance without preconditions or barriers such as enrollment in treatment services or other programs—over more short-term or limited housing assistance. Beginning in the 1990s and early 2000s, national research into housing best practices started to favor these interventions, and OPCS also saw a push from their federal funders—including the U.S. Department of Justice and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—to align grant-funded programming with these evidence-based practices. For the leaders at OPCS, this change in programming was an opportunity to modernize their approaches and ensure that the organization was effectively serving their community.
OPCS CEO Tom Litwicki saw the benefit of the Housing First approach early on in his career when he was working as a clinician for veterans with chronic mental illnesses.
“They weren’t calling it ‘housing first’ at the time,” he said, remembering an early version of offering housing without barriers. According to Litwicki, the initial change was just simply about trying to ensure people no longer had to struggle on the streets. “[But eventually, we] saw people’s mental health symptoms decrease [with the new approach],” he said. “Their wellness increased. It was amazing.”
Not everyone on OPCS’s staff initially bought in to the change in programming, however. Litwicki and Director of Recovery Communities Katy Scoblink admit that the initial reactions of staff were “mixed.” Many employees had successfully gone through OPCS’s previous housing stability programs themselves, and truly believed in them as the best housing practices for people returning to the community from incarceration. Leadership faced the hurdle of managing a skeptical, but invested staff.
“[For] folks who had been doing it a long time, it was a bit of a shock to the system,” Scoblink said.
“There [was] a real deep root for them because it’s what worked for them personally,” Litwicki added. “It’s not an understatement to say [the new Housing First approach challenged] their worldview. It [was] a true undertaking, [and] I found sharing research and numbers to not be helpful at all.”
Instead, Litwicki believes the staff were eventually won over by personal stories of people who had successfully reentered the community after they were provided housing first upon reentry.
“[Staff] care about the people; that’s their bottom line,” he said. “And when they see someone who’s been homeless for 20 years get into their own apartment in about 65 days and be happy and successful, they’re hooked. It’s experiential.”
According to Scoblink, staff also needed to see that OPCS leaders were not only “passionate and on board” with the change in approach, but also committed to regular communication and to letting staff know that their concerns were being heard and respected. That commitment to the new approach and to transparency with OPCS staff paid off, according to Scoblink, who says that staff are more “committed and confident” with the new model about a year after it was first implemented.
Now, Housing First is part of OPCS’s strategic plan and mission, and their funders and community partners have taken notice. Before implementing the Housing First approach, OPCS operated about 40 units of assisted housing. Today they have more than 120 units throughout the community. They have also hired new staff and seen a “significant increase in funding” since implementing the change to a Housing First approach, estimated at more than $1 million, according to Litwicki.
OPCS also has new partnerships and contracts with Veterans Affairs, Medicaid, and local hospitals and the health department—all opportunities made more possible by aligning their programming with federally recognized best practices and successfully implementing a Housing First approach. In addition, the Tucson city council has been very supportive of the shift in programming, and in part because of that support, OPCS was recently awarded a three-year implementation science capacity-building grant from Social Venture Partners, which will allow them to further expand and improve their services.
Litwicki sees the success of the Housing First approach as a signal to others that while it can be challenging for an organization to change its housing and reentry approach, being adaptable to changes in the field can help benefit the people they serve who are reentering the community.
“Our number one strategy is providing quality service influenced by best practice,” he said. “We want that to be part of our DNA.”