2018 brought pivotal changes to how people access homeless services in Greater Richmond. At the beginning of the calendar year, our community shifted to a phone-based access point, the Housing Crisis Line. By the third quarter of last year, the Housing Crisis Line averaged over 10,000 calls per quarter. It was clear that the volume of this program was too large for any single agency. In response to this need, our community came together to deliver a multi-agency approach to our region’s primary homeless services access point. The rebranded Homeless Crisis Line (HCL) launched in late September with four agencies providing six HCL staff members.

Five of the HCL positions are Diversion Specialists. These are the tireless staff members on the other end of the line when someone facing a housing crisis calls for help. Because Homeward houses the HCL in our offices, we had the opportunity to speak with several Diversion Specialists this week to gain insight into how they approach their jobs and what it means to them to assist people in crisis.

The Diversion Specialists shared how they understand that many of the clients lack access to “natural support [networks] to help them overcome the crises they face.” The emerging best practice of Diversion in homeless services works to solve this very problem. At a basic level, Diversion is a tool to help people experiencing a housing crisis problem-solve and avoid entering into homelessness.

The specialists at the HCL shared that they implement Diversion in a number of ways. At times, it is mediating family conflict so that a mother and her children don’t enter the shelter system. Other times, it is helping to identify and reestablish connections to a supportive friend or family member. Often it is offering temporary support by being a listening ear that helps a client talk through their crisis.

However, it is important to “know and set boundaries”, one specialist added. The focus is to help people get connected to resources and services, but also to empower them to take actionable steps towards overcoming their crisis.

Each Diversion Specialist spoke of the rewarding sense of accomplishment “when someone in crisis gets connected to the services they need.” Sometimes that is diverting people from homelessness. Other times that reward comes by seeing that someone they spoke with got off the street and into emergency shelter. The specialists also admitted that their job stretches and reveals latent assumptions about people experiencing homelessness in even seasoned homeless service professionals. This requires patiently treating each caller with respect and dignity, even when the line receives over 4,000 calls a month.

In 2018, the HCL served 6,351 unique people and 14,097 entries were made in our network’s client database. At this volume of service, perhaps the most important insight is that the HCL staff members and partnering agencies still look optimistically into the New Year as an opportunity build on and consolidate the changes made to homeless services in 2018.

The Homeless Crisis Line (HCL) is a phone-based access point for people who are experiencing homelessness or who will lose housing within three days. The phone line is open Monday-Friday 8am-6pm. The partnering agencies of the HCL are Area Congregations Together for Service (ACTS), HomeAgain, Homeward, and Housing Families First.  HCL staff includes five Diversion Specialists, Ms. Gonzalez (ACTS), Destiny Hunter (Housing Families First), Tyree Lewis (Housing Families First), Dawn Oliveri (ACTS), Avis Winston (Home Again) and HCL Coordinator, Terri Lawson (Homeward).

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