“Wilson Commencement Park was life altering because it gave me a place to bring my children. It was a place where I knew they were going to be safe and I knew that I had an opportunity to start focusing on other things like looking for a job and other normal day-to-day things.”
This is how one former resident described the stability and safety of Wilson Commencement Park. Wilson Commencement Park is a transitional housing program founded by the Wilson Foundation in Rochester, NY, for low-income, single-parent families. It provides affordable housing for up to two years in an attractive, secure, gated community. The development includes 50 two- and three- bedroom townhouses and an apartment building for 18 single-parent families.
The Wilson Commencement Park also provides many services to help residents establish long-term economic and residential stability. Based on the success of these programs, Wilson Housing Commencement Park was recently recommended by HUD for Exemplary Status and as a Best Practice Model.
New research published in the HRC Special Issue on “The Future of Homeless Services” in the Open Health Services and Policy Journal offers a new way to assess what families need to exit homelessness. “A Framework for Developing Supports and Services for Families Experiencing Homelessness” points to emerging research demonstrating that supports and services help ensure long-term housing stability for families.
Supportive housing programs like Wilson Commencement Park can be a critical step toward residential and economic independence for single-parent families. This is particularly true for parents who are maintaining sobriety or fleeing domestic violence. Wilson Commencement Park provides security, structure, and support for parents to rebuild their lives and set the foundation to support their families independently.
For those recovering from substance abuse, Wilson Commencement Park provides a secure setting in a familiar neighborhood, which removes the parent from a locale where she could easily buy drugs. The supportive environment protects her from the associations—both relationally and physically —that could trigger a relapse. The gated community also ensures a safe haven from drug dealers and users.
Wilson Commencement Park also provides benefits that extend beyond services for substance abuse or domestic violence. The stability offered by two years of housing removes the stress of housing insecurity. Parents are able to address any other challenges such as negative relationship patterns, credit problems, or inconsistent employment that may have previously hindered their ability to maintain economic and residential stability.
The National Center on Family Homelessness, a partner of the Homelessness Resource Center, recently conducted a study of Wilson Commencement Park alumni. The study focused on the long-term outcomes of 31 women who had left the program in the past five to ten years. The women were predominantly African American, tended to have two children, had a high school degree or higher, and tended to have multiple sources of social support. However, they also had various challenges and barriers including histories of trauma, domestic violence, mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and criminal records.
With the supports provided by Wilson Commencement Park, these women were able to overcome their personal challenges to make substantial progress toward sustained family stability, economic independence, and community integration.
Eighty-one percent of the alumni were employed and more than three-quarters had jobs that included standard benefits. Most were working in higher status positions than those they held while at Wilson Commencement Park. Public benefits were also low: none were receiving TANF, 3% had a rental subsidy, 4% had utility assistance, 11% had food stamps, and 24% were on Medicaid. Ninety-seven percent were stably housed, although they tended to live in low-cost housing or housing below the Fair Market rent. Forty-two percent lived in high poverty areas.
Their children also had encouraging outcomes. The vast majority of school-age children (91%) were in age-appropriate grade levels, and only one had dropped out of school. Some had gone on to college and employment, but 25% of those no longer in school were unemployed.
Some of the children, however, had experienced emotional and mental health challenges. Nearly 40% of alumni had lived apart from their children at some point, and some children had been victims of physical or sexual abuse, or had witnessed violence. A small number of children also had substance abuse problems and/or had been incarcerated.
The successes and challenges revealed by Wilson Commencement Park suggest important program and policy implications for other housing programs. While current service trends favor permanent housing, the services and support provided by transitional housing may help to promote future stability for some formerly homeless and low-income families.
Despite personal challenges, alumni of Wilson Commencement Park were able to establish self-sufficiency, avoid homelessness, and substantially reduce their reliance on government programs. Removing the stress of housing instability and providing relevant services allowed parents the opportunity to develop independence.
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