What is supportive housing?
Supportive housing is permanent affordable housing for individuals who are formerly homeless and who have significant barriers to maintaining housing on their own such as severe and persistent mental illness, substance abuse, or poor physical health as a result of years spent without adequate shelter.
The fundamental characteristic of this housing is that it includes access to on-site supportive services that sustain tenants on a path of long-term stability, including case management, social activities, and educational offerings that enhance their self-sufficiency and quality of life.
What is “Housing First?”
Housing First is the philosophy that a homeless person’s first and primary need is to obtain stable shelter, and that their other issues can best be addressed once in that space. Breaking Ground is committed to this Housing First approach. We provide supportive housing with as few barriers as possible. There is no requirement for housing applicants to be sober or participating in mental health services. We don’t ask applicants to demonstrate stability in order to live in Breaking Ground housing. Our housing is what will enable a person to achieve that stability. We have seen it over and over again: sobriety, improved health, and happy lives are within the reach for even those homeless individuals who have struggled for years with debilitating illness and substance abuse disorders. It all starts with a safe place to live, a door that someone can lock, and a bed to sleep in night after night.
Who lives in supportive housing?
Supportive housing mainly serves those who have lived on the streets for years, including individuals with severe and persistent mental illness. It also to a lesser extent serves those who are the most likely to fall into homelessness, such as youth aging out of foster care and people with chronic health conditions such as HIV/AIDS.Breaking Ground’s buildings typically include a mix of supportive and affordable units. Affordable units are available to low-income working individuals (who most often do not have a history of homelessness) and provide an important community improvement benefit to the neighborhood in which the residence is located.
Is supportive housing expensive?
Compared to the alternative of leaving someone outside on the streets, supportive housing is not only the most humane and effective response to chronic homelessness, it is also the most cost-effective. When someone lives outdoors, they frequently make disproportionate use of expensive public resources like emergency rooms, psychiatric beds, jails, and emergency shelters. A 2013 report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene concluded that supportive housing saves the public approximately $10,000 per person per year. (Source: http://shnny.org/research/new-york-new-york-iii-supportive-housing-evaluation/)
How long can tenants live in Breaking Ground’s supportive housing?
Breaking Ground operates permanent supportive housing, meaning tenants continue to live in our buildings so long as they meet their lease requirements (including rent payment and absence of disruptive behavior). In general, although our special needs tenants improve their lives markedly through the stability provided by supportive housing, they are likely to continue to require at least some level of safety net assistance within these settings for the rest of their lives.
Low-income tenants likewise also have permanent occupancy leases with Breaking Ground, again, under condition of essentially standard lease requirements. Many do choose to move on, however, when their income increases.
With the exception of our Montrose Veterans Transitional Residence, which has a maximum stay of two years, our transitional housing programs do not impose time limits. As a general rule, it takes far less than two years for a transitionally housed tenant to acquire permanent housing.
How are supportive housing developments financed?
Financing for supportive housing is different depending on where the building is located and the resource commitments by that locale for this type of residence. In New York City, where Breaking Ground primarily operates, we rely on federal Low-income Housing Tax Credits to pay a large portion of capital costs to construct supportive housing. These sources are supplemented by City or State tax-exempt bond financing and by subsidy loans from public sources and in some cases from private sources such as the Federal Home Loan Bank.
Typically, a supportive residence is majority-owned by the private-sector Low-Income Housing Tax Credit investor for 15 years, with a very small minority ownership by a General Partner controlled by the nonprofit developer/operator. Ownership is typically transferred from the investor to the nonprofit at the end of 15 years. Generally, the public capital sources require the nonprofit to operate the residence as affordable supportive housing for 30 years.
Who pays for the ongoing operation of supportive housing?
Supportive housing operations are typically paid for by a mix of sources. Like many forms of affordable housing for very low-income populations, supportive housing requires a combination of tenant-paid rents (most often capped at no more than 30% of the individual’s income) and public subsidies, such as HUD Section 8 vouchers, HASA (HIV/AIDS) funding, or VASH vouchers (for veterans) to meet operating costs. The onsite supportive services for this type of housing are mainly paid by public grants and contracts and, to a lesser extent, private philanthropy.
The considerable cost savings of this type of housing to public sector budgets make its expense well worth it (see “Is supportive housing expensive?”).
What is transitional housing?
Transitional housing is similar to permanent supportive housing in that it includes onsite services to enable stability in the lives of people who suffer from chronic homelessness. Here, though, services are more acutely focused on securing permanent housing, including by obtaining the many documents required by permanent placements.
What is a Safe Haven?
Safe Havens are a particular type of transitional housing designed by the City of New York to accommodate homeless individuals who do not make use of traditional shelter and are not yet ready for permanent housing.
Safe Havens are “low-threshold” resources: they have fewer requirements, making them attractive to those who are resistant to emergency shelter. There are no curfews and more privacy. A client can miss a night at the Safe Haven without losing his or her bed, as they would at a traditional shelter.
But the fewer restrictions do not signal a hands-off approach. Safe Havens offer intensive mental health and substance abuse assistance, with the ultimate goal of moving each client into permanent housing. Safe Havens are, thus, a crucial harm reduction/Housing First resource to enable the most entrenched chronically homeless who have extreme reluctance to leave behind their unsheltered lives to accept help.
What is the difference between transitional housing and an emergency shelter?
While transitional housing always includes considerable onsite support services to enable the lasting stability of a homeless person in housing, emergency shelters typically don’t offer such extensive assistance. These shelters are, therefore, not a housing environment where chronically homeless persons are necessarily afforded the space to work on overcoming their life circumstances. In transitional housing, an individual can stay in place to work with professional case managers on his or her goals for housing stability over a sustained period of time.
Does Breaking Ground operate emergency shelters?
No. We operate 3,500 (and counting) units of transitional and permanent housing for low-income and formerly homeless individuals.
What is your Scatter Site program?
While the vast majority of Breaking Ground’s housing is in congregate settings (multi-unit residences), we also offer “Scatter Site” units that are rented in buildings operated by private landlords. Breaking Ground does this in order to add to the total number of units available for chronically homeless individuals. Scatter Site tenants also benefit from supportive services, meeting with support staff at our agency’s Scatter Site program office, at their apartment, or both.
When was Street to Home started?
The Street to Home model was pioneered by Breaking Ground and partner agencies in 2004 and adopted by the NYC Department of Homeless Services as a citywide strategy in 2007.
Who is responsible for street outreach in New York City?
The City of New York is responsible for street outreach, through its Department of Homeless Services (DHS). DHS contracts with the following agencies to conduct around the clock street outreach:
How does street outreach work?
Outreach teams canvass the streets of a community day and night, 365-days per year to engage with each homeless person they encounter. Outreach staff ascertain current and historical factors contributing to an individual’s homelessness and connect them to supports - whether immediately to emergency services or to transitional or permanent housing
This is a very personal service, tailored to the needs of each street homeless individual. It often takes multiple interactions by an outreach worker to convince a street homeless person to come onto caseload, which then allows them to begin the process of placement in transitional and permanent supportive housing.
Check out this video to see one of our street outreach teams in action.
How does a person go from the street into housing? What are the steps?
Every person’s journey from the streets into permanent housing can be different, depending on their situation and how long it takes for them to accept assistance. Some of these individuals are difficult to locate from one day to the next. Many suffer from severe and persistent mental illness and/or recurrent substance abuse. They may be socially isolated and fearful of interacting with other people, including outreach workers.
Despite these challenges Breaking Ground’s street outreach staff persevere - connecting New York’s most vulnerable homeless residents with safe, secure homes. The entire process can take weeks, months, or even years. The following steps are followed to successfully help a chronically homeless individual secure housing.
Our outreach workers are on the streets 24-hours a day, building trusting relationships with homeless individuals. They meet each individual “where they are” both physically and psychologically, with respect, kindness, and persistence. They offer short-term help, such as a ride to a nearby drop-in center, but always with the goal of helping the client see a possibility of long-term housing.
Open the case
As soon as Breaking Ground determines that the person meets the definition for being chronically homeless, we add them to the Street to Home caseload and pair them with a case manager, who then works with the individual to complete a thorough needs assessment.
Gather documentation & apply
NYC’s supportive housing application requires a significant breadth of personal information including housing and hospitalization histories, medication lists, health assessments, and income. It also requires a valid form of identification, something many homeless persons lack. Our case managers play a critical role in helping clients successfully secure all necessary documents and complete the application process.
Once an application for supportive housing is accepted by NYC’s Human Resources Administration, the process moves to the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS). That agency scours its database for available supportive housing units based on certain client needs, such as assistance with mental health and/or substance use issues.
Interview with housing provider
Once appropriate vacancies have been identified, the client interviews with prospective housing provider(s).
Finalize benefits and move in
Final administrative steps take place, reconfirming applicant eligibility for housing subsidies and funding. After a successful interview, the final approval is received. As soon as the client secures funds for the first month’s rent, he or she moves into their new home.
The days, months and years ahead
In their new homes, tenants continue their healing journeys, making use of on-site supportive services to address health issues, substance abuse, and other barriers to sustain housing stability (if in a permanent supportive residential setting). They live in a community with their fellow New Yorkers, pay rent, and contribute to an environment of mutual respect and continued personal growth.
What is the difference between episodic, situational and chronic homelessness?
The majority of homeless people in New York and across the United States are without housing due to economic circumstances, whether it be extremely low-wages relative to high housing costs, loss of employment, or some devastating financial calamity such as overwhelming medical expenses. Some people experience homelessness for other discrete reasons, such as domestic violence. In the above cases, these individuals and families are considered either homeless episodically or for situational reasons, and can often regain housing stability through a targeted, time-limited assistance plan. Many homeless individuals and families, in fact, only experience a loss of shelter once in their lives, although some experience ongoing underlying housing instability to a degree.
The chronically homeless have considerably more complex barriers to housing stability than mainly financial concerns (although they have these as well). These are primarily individuals (rather than families), often living with serious and persistent mental illness and/or active substance use. New York State defines a person as chronically homeless if he or she has spent a year or more (continuously) on the streets (in parks and/or in subways) or has had four episodes in the last three years of homelessness that add up to 12 or more months without shelter.
What is the best way to help a homeless person in need?
Alerting homeless services to an individual in need of shelter is often the best way to help someone whom you know or believe is living outdoors. In New York City, the best way to do this is by calling 311 and identifying to the operator that a person is street homeless . Outreach workers are mandated to quickly respond to each such notification.
If someone appears to be in immediate crisis, however, call 911 for emergency medical attention.
Should I give money to a homeless person who asks for it?
It is always your prerogative to give funds to a homeless person, but doing so is frequently not the best way to help that individual overcome the fundamental causes of their housing instability.
Providing funds to trusted human services nonprofits with proven records of both responsible use of resources and consistently strong outcomes to help connect the homeless with housing and services is a better strategy to help homeless individuals and to address the problem of homelessness.
I am homeless and need help.
All referrals for Breaking Ground housing are made by a Department of Homeless Services outreach team or the HIV/AIDS Services Administration. Please call 311 or ask an outreach worker to help you begin the application process.
I am a social worker and looking to help someone who is homeless.
Please visit our For Social Workers page.
I am (or someone I know is) at risk of becoming homeless. How can I apply to your affordable housing?
Please visit our Apply for Housing page.
How can I help?
Charitable gifts are vitally important to Breaking Ground’s ability to deliver homeless services, whether permanent supportive housing, transitional housing, or street outreach. Of course, there are other ways to support us as well.
Advocacy among your family, friends, peers and elected representatives is one of the most effective ways to help further the cause of supportive housing as an especially wise strategy to address homelessness. The more people from all sectors of society who know about the cost-efficacy of this model, the farther it can reach.
Volunteering is also an excellent way to give back. Breaking Ground would not be able to hold anywhere near the number of tenant events that are so crucial to the healing and growth process for our formerly homeless residents, nor would we be able to conduct our annual census of street homeless individuals, if not for the gift of volunteer time.
Why should I give to Breaking Ground? How will you use my donation?
Across our portfolio of programs, we strive to make the most responsible use of philanthropic resources.
Through the gifts of our generous donors, each year we are able to bring hundreds of homeless New Yorkers from the streets into the safety of housing. We use donors’ funds to pay for many costs of running our programs, including expenses not fully covered by government contracts. As just a few examples, these can include “move in kits” (sheets, blankets, pots and pans) for new homeless tenants of our housing, GPS technology used by our outreach teams, and skills-building programs, among many other valuable purposes.
Do you have volunteer opportunities?
Breaking Ground offers various volunteer opportunities throughout the year, from serving meals to repainting tenant services areas of our buildings to providing administrative support to our program staff.
If you are interested in joining Breaking Ground’s Young Professionals Committee, click here.
Do you accept donations of clothing or furniture?
Our Young Professionals Committee regularly conducts drives for various items of immediate need to homeless clients, including hygiene and move-in kits. We are generally, however, unable to accept items outside of these organized drives. Breaking Ground is also generally unable to accept furniture. Nevertheless, if you believe you have items that would benefit us, please by all means contact us.
Are you hiring?
Yes. Please visit our Careers page to view our current employment opportunities.
What are other resources to learn about supportive housing?
Some United States cities, counties, township, parishes, etc. have one or more nonprofits that provide supportive housing for their area and these groups can offer the best contextual information on their services to address homelessness locally.
Nationally, the Corporation for Supportive Housing is among the most highly regarded resources for information on the supportive housing model, homelessness policy, and related matters.
Within New York State, our trade association for the supportive housing industry, with over 100 nonprofit members, is the Supportive Housing Network of New York/The Network. Their website at www.shnny.org offers a wealth of information about the benefits of this residential resource for communities and various special needs populations.
For issues having more broadly to do with homelessness, the National Alliance to End Homelessness is an excellent resource.
Breaking Ground versus Common Ground
Didn’t you used to be called Common Ground? Why did you change your name?
Like many non-profits and other companies do at major milestones, for our 25th anniversary in 2015, we reflected on our organization - how far we’ve come and the great impact we have had on people in greatest need and on New York City. We also wanted to articulate future aspirations at this special time. After 25-years of developing groundbreaking solutions to homelessness, we changed our name to Breaking Ground.
The name reflects our history of building and restoring structures to house New York’s most vulnerable residents, it represents breaking the cycle of homelessness, and signals a new era of growth and renewed commitment to making New York City a better place for everyone who lives here, including those who are most vulnerable among us.