Service groups joining together to improve services for the homeless

Wally Czech talks about a coordinated access system at the Prince Albert library on March 7, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

A group of Prince Albert service agencies are looking to band together in the hopes of providing a more cohesive system for people seeking housing supports.

It’s a concept called a coordinated access system (CAS), sometimes called a coordinated entry system, and it’s designed to streamline the process for people experiencing homelessness to access the housing and support services they need.

The systems have been in place in the United States for several years, and are being implemented more and more in Canada, partly because the federal government homelessness funding strategy, Reaching Home, will require implementation of a CAS by 2022.

Reaching Home is the new program replacing the current Homelessness Partnering Strategy.

Thursday, several local agencies gathered to learn more about CAS, with a smaller group beginning work on plans to implement one in Prince Albert.

“The focus here is to develop a homelessness system of care,” said Brian Howell of River Bank Development Corporation, one of the local agencies leading the project.

“Rather than having these programs off on their own all the time, you’ve got a system where people are treated the same way when they come in, regardless of where they come in, and get the same level of service based on their needs, regardless of who they are or where they are. That’s the ultimate objective.”

The two-day education and planning sessions, which are continuing today, are being led by Wally Czech. Czech is from the Canadian Association to End Homelessness, an agency funded by the federal government to provide training to communities in establishing a CAS.

Czech was the housing first specialist for the City of Lethbridge for five years and is a recognized expert in ending homelessness.

“Right now, what happens in most communities, is everybody does a lot of great work,” he said.

“But you’ll have somebody looking for supports, and they’ll come to an agency, and it says ‘ you should go over here’. The person will go there, but that might not end up being where they need to go. They get sent somewhere else and people get frustrated.

“When you coordinate it, you’re putting everybody on an even playing field, so people are able to access supports in a more equitable way … that is fair and based on priority, so we can make sure those who are needed it the most get access to it the quickest.”

Part of Czech’s presentation included setting out what a CAS looks like and what steps need to be taken to implement one in a community.

That includes establishing a governing body, a common assessment process with established priorities, coordinated entry points and consistent referrals.

It involves steps such as establishing what resources are available and for whom, agreeing on assessment criteria based on needs and determining how those assessed will be referred to different agencies. It also involved data management. Ideally, once a CAS gets going, it develops a named list of individuals, detailing who they are, what their needs are, and where they are in the system. That list needs to cover the entire continuum of housing supports in a community.

In a successful CAS, there are no side doors. Nobody gets to jump the queue. Everybody knows where to go to access the system. Those who manage the system know who needs it and where they are in the process. They also know what is available, and are able to connect the right people with the right needs to the proper resources, in a way that prioritizes access based on a needs basis, not a first-come, first-served basis. Czech admits that it’s a relatively new concept, especially in Canada, but said statistics and case studies have shown CAS to be successful.

“It requires buy-in. It requires them all to say, yep, this is what we’re going to do. To some degree, they don’t have a choice,” Czech said of the agencies.

“Not every one of these organizations have restrictions based on (federal) dollars. But if the community really wants to make a difference, they should. In order for it to work, there’s going to need to be buy-in. People need to say, ‘we’re going to trust the system, and we’re going to see it play out for a while at least.’”

Reactions to Czech’s presentation were mixed. Some agencies seemed uneasy about the size of the task put before them. That’s normal, Czech said.

“People are trying to sort through what this means for them,” he said. While some fear it might add extra cost or time burden to those trying to access help, Czech insists that’s not the case.

Communities that have implemented a CAS see people move through the system faster, he said.

“If they’re matched properly to the right support or right type of housing, they stay in housing longer, they’re more stable and then they’re able to progress and make other changes in their lives,” he said.

‘They’re not so much a burden to the community anymore, as they are just a regular member of the community.”

Over the next day, Howell will continue working with the smaller group to look at the programs they support and get into the “nuts and bolts” of how it might work, he said.

That includes getting feedback on local needs and considerations. From there, the group will work at starting to implement the process Czech spoke about, setting up the group to oversee it, finding the resources to start the implementation work and develop a standard intake form. Ultimately, he thinks it will help the agencies who work with homeless people in Prince Albert to come closer together.

“We do work together lots in Prince Albert. Sometimes things do get lost, and I think that by developing this structure, it sort of systemizes things and will help quite a bit,” he said.

“I think it will bring (service organizations) closer together, so they will be more aware of what each other is up to. If we are successful in developing intake points where people can enter the various housing systems, I think it will make it much easier for the clients as well.”

Howell acknowledges that there is a lot of work to be done.

“It’s always a challenge,” he said. “Change is hard. People are busy. No one ever has enough money or staff to do everything they want to do. This is not an easy task.”

He’s confident, though, that this community will get it done.

“We’ll do it.”