Bobbi Jo Evans is a contributing writer for the HRC website as a member of the HRC Provider Content Network. She is the Housing Specialist at Harbor Health Services, Inc., in Branford, Connecticut, where she provides housing assistance to people with mental illness and works in eviction prevention. In addition, Bobbi Jo has worked for eight years in the housing field as a property manager specializing in subsidized housing.
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In my role as Housing Specialist, I work with clients who are transitioning out of homelessness and searching for housing. They are coping with mental health and/or substance use issues. They may have little or no income. They may have troublesome credit histories or past criminal records. All of these things can be obstacles to successfully obtaining housing. I have learned that it is vital to know as much as possible about your client prior to apartment hunting.
It helps to look at each potential obstacle separately. Addressing obstacles one at a time can help you to determine how to present and represent your client to a prospective landlord. It is also important to understand Fair Housing Laws for your state so that you can properly advocate for your client. There are federal regulations, and many states also have state-specific Fair Housing regulations in addition to the federal rules. Familiarize yourself with these laws and provide a copy to your client. Having an extra copy for a landlord is also advisable. Many landlords are not familiar with Fair Housing Laws.
You must strike a balance between protecting your client’s privacy and providing necessary information to a landlord. A landlord may ask you, “What is wrong with your client?” Yet, you have the responsibility to protect your client’s right to privacy. You will need to explain to the landlord that there are laws protecting people who experience any kind of disability. Check your state’s Fair Housing laws for more details about what information is protected by law.
Many people who are transitioning from homelessness face challenges around income. It is important to verify if it is illegal in your state for landlords to discriminate on the basis of “source of income.” If it is illegal, landlords cannot discriminate based on the source of a client’s income. However, in some instances, they can refuse to rent to someone based on the person’s income level. Ask for clarification from the landlord if it is not clearly stated in the rental application that income must be a certain amount (for example, three times the monthly rent).
Criminal History or History of Substance Use
A client who has a criminal history with felonies involving larceny, narcotics, arson, or any violent behavior can be barred from government-funded housing, depending on the program. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) restricts clients who are Level 3 sex offenders or have convictions related to certain narcotics (i.e., methamphetamines) from obtaining HUD-funded housing. Since homeless service programs typically offer subsidized housing through HUD funding, it is important to be aware of these restrictions. Beyond these federal regulations, state and local public housing authorities are required to develop additional regulations that vary and may further restrict entry.
If you are working with clients who are faced with housing barriers due to criminal histories, you may want to consider working with private landlords. It helps to be prepared before approaching them. Have all treatment services documented with letters of support from clinicians, case managers, and others who have worked with your client. Obtain court documents testifying to charges that might have been dropped.
You can help educate a landlord by providing informational material about recovery and treatment. I have learned that a little bit of education will help a landlord feel more comfortable. It will also help him to make informed decisions.
If a client is rejected due to a criminal history, request a hearing. Different states have different regulations, but most provide the applicant a specific number of days to respond in writing to the landlord to request a hearing. The hearing will be with a representative of the landlord’s. It will give your client the opportunity to explain, justify, or challenge the reason for rejection. Often, being honest and speaking directly with the landlord makes the best impression.
A landlord will pay close attention to a client with a credit report that includes eviction, bankruptcy, or unpaid utilities. Landlords seek evidence that a prospective client will pay rent and utilities on time. You can help by making payment arrangements for any unpaid utilities. This helps to prove that the client can obtain utility services in his own name.
You must help by providing explanations if your client has any past evictions. Obtain all relevant court documents. Be prepared to explain a bankruptcy and provide evidence that the client is working to improve his credit history. In addition, watch for any discrepancies or errors in the client’s credit report. There is a website that helps you obtain a free credit report from the major credit reporting agencies.
History of Homelessness
Landlords may ask for references from past landlords. If you are working with a client who is homeless, references may not be available. Be prepared and try to obtain letters from shelters or friends a client may have stayed with in the past. Transitional housing or shelters may have requirements on behavior and cleanliness. This information may be helpful to a landlord.
First Impressions Count
Landlords often make decisions based on first impressions. It is important to work with a client to help make a good impression at the first meeting. Help prepare the client by running through different possible scenarios prior to meeting with the landlord. Ask your client to role-play the part of the landlord to help them view the situation from a different perspective.
Finding a home for both a client and his pet can be a challenge. If a client has had a pet for a long time, it can be unbearable for him or her to imagine life apart from the pet. Many clients are willing to be homeless rather than place their pet in someone else’s care. However, most landlords have strict pet restrictions.
It is important to discuss the client’s requirements around pets prior to apartment hunting. If the pet is vital to a client’s recovery, start a dialogue with medical professionals. Explore the possibility of pursuing a reasonable accommodation for medically necessary animals with the landlord. In addition, there may be local agencies that will foster animals until permanent homes are found.
There are no easy solutions to the obstacles faced by people who are transitioning out of homelessness. Each obstacle will present differently for every client. Being prepared is the most important tool for overcoming hurdles. It is important to stay positive and to provide your client with strong feedback. Be prepared and do your research. All obstacles are eventually overcome. It will take time and hard work, but it is not impossible to help your client find the right home of his or her own.
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