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'To End Homelessness, Partner With Landlords,' Says Rockford

Sarah Jesmer
Nathan Mawhinney with Rockford's Human Services Department hosts a presentation at a Landlord Engagement & Appreciation Event. The Human Services Department serves as the Community Action Agency.

Efforts to end homelessness in Rockford have been nationally recognized. Community members have achieved a "functional zero" of veteran and chronically homeless populations. Now, the focus is turning to other populations.


"Functional zero"meansthat a list of people looking for housing doesn't exceed a certain number and that no one stays on that list past a certain deadline. 

According to Rockford's Community Action Agency, it's going to take partnerships with property owners to achieve a goal of functional zero for all homeless populations in 2020. The group, serving as part of the city's Human Services Department, recently hosted a landlord engagement night. 




Mary O'Sullivan-Snyder said she operates around 62 units with "think people"in east Rockford. She’s the vice president of the Rockford Apartment Association, and came to the engagement night with her husband.


"I was interested in the housing for the veterans," she said. 


She said her family's rental company doesn't partner with the Agency at this time. They rent to people in town temporarily on business. She said they also rent to those using housing voucher programs like Section 8. 


"You always hear horror stories," she said about her experience as a landlord. "But you don't hear about the tenants who have been with you 12 and 15 years that send you Christmas cards," she said.


Those who need housing come through the Community Action Agency and become clients. Their address in downtown Rockford acts as the single point of entry for clients to start the process of joining a housing program or service in Winnebago, Boone, and most recently, DeKalb County.


Clients might be in need of emergency shelter or fleeing violence. Maybe they’re literally homeless, or they might be facing eviction. The agency's role, in partnership with other regional organizations, is to house them and walk alongside them through whatever issues might come up in order to sustain that home. 


O'Sullivan-Snyder says it'd be helpful if the clients were also educated on life skills. 


"So they understand the repercussions of a Q-tip down a toilet, grease down the drain, what do you do with the grease. You have to give them real world training," she said.


This matters to her because landlords usually foot the bill for tenant damages. Landlords who partner with the agency though can talk to a specific caseworker in times of conflict to mitigate communication problems and finances. 


"There's going to be a risk in anything that you do," said attendee Zaram Bukhari, of AZB Property Management. "I like the fact that there is a sense of a big brother kind of helping the homeless individual trying to get back on their feet," he said.


He said 15 out of his nearly 200 units are used right now to house clients.


"I just came here today, just so that I can fine tune what we do on our business with their organization to try to help and [homelessness] in Rockford," he said.


Business can include temporarily subsidizing someone's rent or utilities, for example, or connecting tenant clients with a job so they can support themselves long term. 


Rockford's community has reached significant goals in the past with this model. They want to continue working in large strides. The Agency's most immediate goal is to target ending youth homelessness by the end of this year.


That's Josie McCanse's department. She's the city's youth housing advocate.


"It’s going pretty well. It doesn't happen as fast as I would like. I have to remember that they also have lives, they have children, many are trying to find jobs," she said. 


She said this goal is different than other functional zero goals because for youth, functional zero means simply that: zero. And the number of youth she's working with now is close to 20, she said.


Functional zero efforts are focused only on Winnebago and Boone County rates, according to Angie Walker, Housing Advocate with the Community Services Division. Walker said Rockford is farther along in this goal than other communities. "Most communities are not this close," she said.


McCanse said 18 to 24-year-olds need bit of life skill training too, because they're young. She says homelessness is a life pattern for a majority of her clients, and individuals haven't had the support that they needed.


"And when you turn 18, to say, 'Okay -- boom -- you're an adult, get a job, find an apartment, budget your money, be responsible,' it doesn't work like that -- that a lot of our skills are learned traits. And if you have not learned those traits, of course you're going to flounder, and you most definitely can end up homeless," she said.


On a similar mission, Rockford's Shelter Care Ministries is eyeing rates of homeless families. Shelter Care is led by Sarah Parker-Scanlon, the group's executive director.


"It's just you have so many other moving pieces [when housing families]," said Parker-Scanlon. "There's just additional barriers to obtaining housing, and then maintaining it," she said. Some of these barriers include finding stable childcare and making efforts to not move kids around too much through subsidized housing while they settle into school. 


Shelter Care also runs Jubilee Center and MAYA’s House. She said she sees the effects of Winnebago County's calculated and precise housing efforts. 


She added there's been increased access to housing voucher programs, too, which are distributed through the Winnebago Housing Authority. 


"Just this year, I would say there's been more people in six months for Shelter Care that have received Section 8 vouchers than I saw in, you know, 15 years prior," she said.


On average, she said there's more than 30 families enrolled at a time in their agencies programs. She said African American families are disproportionately represented in her organization's housing programs.


Teamwork is key to achieving this community-wide homeless goal, she said. Parker-Scanlon said agencies in the region do that well.


"We're willing to reach out and help people find assistance elsewhere. And I think that's really important. We can't be all operating in silos or acting like, 'Oh, we're the only one that knows how to do this, and we're going to do it best,'" she said.


Rockford has the highest rate of eviction in the state, according to researchers with the Eviction Lab, Researchers say 2016 data shows that around 3 households are evicted every day.


"What's behind that?" said Parker-Scanlon wondered. "I think it's a good conversation. And it's part of -- We're not connecting people that are close to eviction with homeless prevention. Do we not have enough funding for that?"


Partnership efforts like that of the Action Agency and other shelters might mean landlords will end up issuing more leases than eviction notices. 



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