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Reflections on Services in a Down-turned Economy

August 28, 2009

Written by: Janet Gaza

I am often asked, “How do families get accepted into the Bridge housing program?” or “How do you decide who to help?”  These questions seem to be easy to answer, but the reality is that the decision making process of who enters the Transitional Housing Program is complex.  The process starts, with the first of many steps, when a person-in-need calls looking for help.  We define this as an “intake call.” 

The cruel fact is that Bridge Communities receives more than 1,100 calls annually from people experiencing some type of housing crisis.  Some are out of work, some are physically and/or mentally ill, some are working but their wages are just not enough to make ends meet, some have left abusive relationships, and some have been left by their spouses—-the family’s primary wage earner— to raise the children alone; some are young mothers asked to leave the parental home.  Listening to a caller’s despair; I ache when they cry and don’t blame them when they are angry. 

I am one of five case managers at Bridge Communities; we share the responsibilities of processing intake calls.  Our role as we receive calls is to listen intently and try to decide whether the caller would be a good match for placement into our Program and achieve our mission of moving a family from homelessness to self sufficiency in just two years.    We try to assess motivation, willingness to work with mentors, willingness to budget, as well as the physical and emotional ability to work towards self sufficiency.   During an intake call, many questions need to be answered:  Would this caller be a good candidate for Bridge Communities transitional housing program?  Could the caller benefit from what Bridge has to offer?  Does the caller express a desire to change behaviors and allow others to help? 

If we do feel like the Transitional Housing Program is a good match, we schedule a face-to-face interview with the family.  During this meeting one of the case managers conducts an in-depth family, employment and personal interview. 

After this interview, we discuss if the potential client family has the desire, determination and basic skills to move forward with our Program.  We recognize the weight of this process and rely on each of our professional experiences to determine the client family’s next step.  If we feel that the client family is a good candidate, we move onto a second interview that probes more into the client’s history and their future goals.  We also begin a legal and criminal background check and drug abuse screening.  If the potential client family passes this step, we ask the Program Partner volunteer team to meet with the family.  This is a very important step in the process as the Program Partner volunteer team will be the primary persons that the client family works with during their two-year stay in the Transitional Housing Program.  This team must feel that the client family will be a good match. 

We have noticed that the current economic situation is reflected in the intake calls we receive.  There has been a sharp increase from people who have never before needed help, but due to job loss and longer than anticipated unemployment, their financial stability has evaporated.  Many of these callers are also in foreclosure.  More calls are coming from families who have had economically stable lives, but through a series of stressful events—cancer diagnosis, job loss, home foreclosure, severe depression—– have come to the end of the line and have had to make the call to Bridge.  These calls hit closer to home, I wonder how my own family would be sustained if we had to endure the same setbacks?

The most difficult part of intake is realizing that our Program will not be a good match for everyone.  With our Program Partners, our team at Bridge has positively impacted hundreds of families. However knowing this, does not make it any easier to decline a families’ request for help with housing.  If the family is not a good match for our program, we refer him or her to other services within DuPage County.  But that seems like cold comfort, when in fact these agencies are under funded and overwhelmed, and are referring callers to Bridge.  While I am proud that Bridge is the largest provider of transitional housing in DuPage County, it does make me wonder where families are turning to when we are unable to provide housing.

This question continues to drive us to move forward and help as many families as we can.  We know that the families that graduate from our Program go on to lead financially stable and self sufficient lives.

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