Removing Barriers: Using Technology to Reduce Homelessness and Increase Access to Support

Contributed by: Michael Culmo – Chief Program Officer and Kaylynn Sholomicky, MPH – CAN Youth Navigator

In March 2020, at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, , Mental Health Connecticut (MHC) and the Department of Housing (DOH) recognized an urgent need to streamline the connection between people experiencing homelessness and their ability to seek housing and other services. DOH indicated that they would like to pilot a call center in MHC’s Northwest CT Coordinated Access Network (CAN) that would allow us to test out how to frame the line of work for other state CANs and determine the best way of working and communicating remotely.

Agustin Lopez (MHC’s Director of Specialized Community Services), Gabby Padilla (MHC’s Program Coordinator of Housing Services), and Dainius Vitartus (MHC’s Director of IT) worked with staff from the Department of Housing (DOH), Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), and Connecticut’s 2-1-1 call center/info-line to connect individuals experiencing homelessness directly to our staff. MHC created a call tree through Microsoft Teams that routes incoming calls directly to our 4 homeless services staff members. This ensures that calls are answered by a live staff person (whomever gets to the call first).

This change from in-person to telephonic meetings has enabled us to expand our intake hours from 8:00 a.m. – 12 noon to 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. which has further decreased the time individuals have to wait for an intake appointment and housing placement. Since MHC created and started piloting this program on 3/16/20 we have received positive feedback from program participants, 2-1-1, our funders, as well as staff. Staff are able to quickly connect with individuals in need, and provide the appropriate level of support and simultaneously decreasing everyone’s risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“It warms my heart to see the tenacity and commitment from our staff to keep pushing barriers and work to continue to provide support and services during this difficult time. They live MHC’s mission as they deliver news, get aid for recent leases, or find ways of easing the struggles that some families and individuals may share with them over the phone; this with bountiful empathy and willingness as they help their everyday callers requesting aid.” – Agustin Lopez

Connecting with participants via phone while working remotely has proven to be beneficial for the CAN process in numerous ways. By taking calls directly or reaching out to participants for same day appointments, we are able to make immediate contact to assess their needs and help them navigate to resources that are able to provide support. It has also enabled us to maintain contact more seamlessly with participants who are coming through the CAN system and follow-up with them when working on a housing plan.

We have also been able to remove a number of barriers our participants may have faced when CANs were only done in person. For example, we recently helped a male participant, return to his hometown in Brazil after 20 years of trying to get back. This individual was visually impaired and although he was able to navigate downtown Waterbury, he struggled getting anywhere further than that area without assistance. The CAN was able to provide him shelter through the Marriott Project and keep him comfortable in the area that he was familiar with. While at the hotel, the participant was easily reachable to staff via phone and everyone was able to work collaboratively to obtain all the necessary documentation to assist him with renewing his passport. With his documentation up-to-date, he was able to obtain his own flight with assistance from the Brazilian community; and at the end of August he successfully returned to Brazil! Without the ability to have a remote intake and continued contact via phone, the barriers this individual may have faced could have delayed his process. Instead, we were able to persevere through this unprecedented time and help him obtain everything needed to happily return home to where he had been trying to get to for many years.

Through decreasing barriers, we are also seeing an increase in the number of participants showing up for appointments. This has proven especially helpful to our most vulnerable populations, including youth. Many youth and young adults come to us experiencing housing instability for the first time. They often debate whether they should even call 2-1-1 to schedule an appointment. Before conducting remote intakes, it was common for youth to hesitate and not show for their appointments. Completing assessments via the phone has allowed us to connect with more youth participants for that initial intake and help provide them information for youth-specific resources in our region, whether they’re receiving CAN services or not.

MHC continues to work with 2-1-1, DOH, and DMHAS to assist our sister agencies across the state in setting up similar processes throughout Connecticut.

To learn more about this story, check out this podcast from Quinnipiac Podcast Studio:

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