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Making Rapid Re-Housing Work: A Case Study of Mercer County, New Jersey

Government expenditures to combat homelessness in the United States have reached record levels.1 One major focus of this funding has been rapid rehousing, an approach that places homeless people in permanent housing as quickly as possible. As part of the 2009 reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), federal funding increased for programs that focus on rapidly rehousing the homeless.2 In a follow-up to the April 2013 policy opinion brief Rapidly Rehousing Homeless Families: New York City—a Case Study, the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness examines the strategy and implementation efforts of another location as its administrators attempt to rapidly rehouse local homeless families. This report traces events in Mercer County, New Jersey, looks at the circumstances that have informed the county’s experiences, and raises questions concerning rapid rehousing in light of results there.

Rapid Rehousing in Mercer County:
Housing Now and the Family Housing Initiative
With a February 2009 award, Mercer County became one of 23 communities chosen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to participate in the Federal Rapid Re-housing Demonstration for Families. In tandem with state money and dispensation to use Temporary Rental Assistance (TRA) grants usually reserved for families transitioning from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, the Mercer County Board of Social Services (MCBOSS) implemented Housing Now, the rapid-rehousing program for homeless families in the area. The county later introduced an expanded and modified version of Housing Now, called the Family Housing Initiative (FHI). Both programs provide a maximum of 18 months of fully paid rent to already homeless families (extensions are made in certain circumstances), and county case managers make efforts to transition families from receipt of aid before they reach the maximum assistance level. The hope is that once a family is established in a residence with prevention aid or TRA, they will remain housed after cash assistance ends.3 Though initially implemented as separate pilots, Housing Now and FHI now operate using the same guidelines, with case management provided by MCBOSS and a local nonprofit organization.4


Acronyms cited in this brief
■ Temporary Rental Assistance (TRA)
■ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
■ Mercer County Board of Social Services (MCBOSS)
■ Family Housing Initiative (FHI)


MERCER COUNTY’S APPROACHIn conjunction with the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness (Mercer Alliance), MCBOSS designated several priorities for its rapid-rehousing program design: provide one point of entry for homeless families; develop and implement a uniform tool for assessing housing and employment barriers; aid families in finding appropriate housing; and provide wrap-around services for rapidly rehoused families to address the barriers to employment and housing retention that were highlighted during assessment. These efforts will be described in the following section.

Single Point of Entry and Standardized Assessment
MCBOSS instituted a single point of entry for homeless services and a standardized assessment process. The county assigned TANF case managers, FHI and Housing Now staff, and employees responsible for finding jobs for parents (under Work First New Jersey) to a single facility called One Stop. There, families undergo an intake process, during which they are evaluated through a universal screening tool to determine eligibility for services. Families who are considered at imminent risk of homelessness are directed to the Family Services unit, where they can receive emergency assistance—to be applied toward owed rent or unpaid bills—to stabilize their housing.5 Homeless families are sent to emergency shelter, where, after eight days, a comprehensive assessment identifies their barriers to self-sufficiency. Based on a variety of factors, a family is placed in one of four categories. A “level 1” family is considered likely to resolve the issue causing their homelessness quickly, with a one-time infusion of assistance. Families in the “level 2” and “level 3” categories are expected to need state assistance for longer periods of time, due to employment or housing barriers such as lack of work or rental history, lack of child care, and/or insufficient education; for those families, no immediate crisis beyond a lack of housing is apparent. Families considered to be “level 4” are currently experiencing one or more immediate crises in addition to lack of housing and are expected to need intensive services for a sustained period.6

Program Priorities

Establish one point of entry for families
■ Use uniform tool for assessing housing and employment barriers
■ Enroll only families with moderate barriers
■ Help families find appropriate and affordable housing
■ Provide wrap-around services to families in their homes

When the rapid-rehousing models were first implemented, MCBOSS used this system of levels to determine the appropriate modes of intervention. Level 1 families were expected to move back into housing on their own in short order. Families who were deemed level 2 or 3 were eligible for the county’s rapid-rehousing program and were expected to move from shelter to permanent housing within 30 days with the help of dedicated caseworkers and TRA. Level 4 families were moved to transitional housing, where they received services until their crises were resolved and they could be reassessed for program eligibility. The intention of this approach was that only families requiring the most intensive services be moved to transitional housing. After almost two years of program implementation, this strategy was modified. Currently, transitional housing as a method of intervention no longer exists in Mercer County, and all families, no matter the severity of their situations, are rapidly rehoused after 30 days if they are still in the emergency-shelter system.7

Finding Appropriate Housing and Wrap-around Services
Each homeless family is assigned a caseworker who supports them during and after the housing process. To accomplish this, MCBOSS reduced caseloads, assigning billing and voucher responsibilities to a different team so that caseworkers could concentrate on social work. The caseworkers, who previously juggled 100 cases apiece on average, were allowed to focus more intensively on these most vulnerable families, managing 25 to 30 cases each and contacting every family at least once a week.8 After the initial Housing Now pilot, MCBOSS amended this approach, establishing a nine-person Rapid Exit Team, comprised of existing staff, to serve only TANF-eligible homeless families in Housing Now and FHI.9 All other families are directed to MCBOSS’s Family Services unit. Caseworkers team with parents to obtain appropriate and affordable housing. These efforts include searching for and visiting potential homes, checking for lead paint (all caseworkers are certified to do so), examining leases with parents, and, finally, negotiating preferential rental agreements with landlords. MCBOSS then makes the security deposits and rental payments.10

1 U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Fiscal Year 2013 Federal Government Homelessness Budget Fact Sheet, February 2012,
2 National Alliance to End Homelessness, Rapid Re-Housing: Successfully Ending Family Homelessness, May 21, 2012,
3 Frank Cirillo, White House Champions of Change, Adopting a Rapid Re-Housing Approach to Address Family Homelessness, July 12, 2012.
4 Mercer County Board of Social Services, e-mail and telephone communications, April 2013.
5 Mercer County Board of Social Services, Serving the Community, 7th Edition, February 2012.
6 Mercer County Board of Social Services, MCBOSS Determination of Level of Intervention Flow
Chart (DRAFT), distributed during meeting on July 26, 2012.
7 Mercer County Board of Social Services, e-mail and telephone communications, April 2013.
8 Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, Adopting a Housing First Approach: Mercer County, New Jersey, distributed during meeting on July 26, 2012.
9 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Family Assistance, TANF-ACFIM-2013-01 (Use of TANF Funds to Serve Homeless Families and Families at Risk of Experiencing Homelessness), February 20, 2013.
10 Mercer County Board of Social Services, information discussed during meeting on July 26, 2012 and in e-mail and telephone communications, April 2013.

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