Bright Spot: Bergen County | Fostering Relationships During Outreach/Inreach

September 20, 2019

Work creatively within the rules and regulations related to housing resources in support of securing permanent housing for those experiencing severe mental illness

Check out this bright spot if…

● Rigid housing and shelter program rules get in the way of building trust and rapport with people experiencing homelessness 

● You want to try it!


Even well-intended rules at shelters and housing programs can sometimes get in the way of building a trusting relationship with and housing homeless individuals. Rules and regulations may be especially problematic for those who are vulnerable and experience multiple barriers to accessing the homeless service system. Be flexible when necessary with rules and policies to prioritize the relationship with and access to the client (without compromising safety). 

Within reason, be flexible with existing shelter and other housing resource rules and policies. Think creatively to prioritize a relationship with and access to vulnerable unhoused clients. 

Bergen County housed all chronically homeless individuals in the summer of 2016. According to subsequent monthly reported data submitted to Built for Zero, Bergen County had maintained an inflow of zero chronically homeless individuals into its system, partly due to its flexible and comprehensive outreach efforts.

Key Action: Make Exceptions for Programming when Appropriate

In order to run a thoughtful and efficient shelter program in Bergen County, Julia Orlando and Mary Sunden enforce certain rules so that operations run smoothly and clients are served safely and respectfully. These rules include guidance around mealtimes, the storage of personal belongings, and expected codes of behavior in their various dorm rooms, bathrooms, and other shared spaces. 

In its surge to functional zero, Bergen County housed the “last” few chronically homeless clients on their By-Name List. These clients were some of the hardest to reach, most vulnerable individuals who had, in many cases, slipped through the cracks of the homeless services system as it is currently set up. 

Julia realized that housing this final cohort of chronically homeless clients required extra advocacy and, in some cases, exceptions to programmatic rules that they themselves set up to run their shelter and homeless resource system. 

For example, the social worker who worked with the “last” chronically homeless individual was always focused on asking the question “what would make you more comfortable?” often going above and beyond their duties in the process. The worker took the client grocery shopping, sometimes spent the whole day visiting if it was necessary for the client to avoid feeling abandoned, etc. 

Key Action: Make Accommodations in Shelter Structure

Bergen County shelter workers make important accommodations to its shelter structure and operations when appropriate and when it works in service of getting the client efficiently housed. For example, they realized that their traditional bathroom structure wouldn’t appropriately accommodate 

a transgender client’s needs or safety, and adjusted accordingly. Also, a dorm sleeping arrangement exception was made when a family with adult children needed to stay in the shelter overnight. Finally, further accommodation is made for people without required documents. Staff are supported to engage in creative problem-solving to secure required documentation, but clients are not barred from shelter or services because they don’t have the documentation upfront. 

Fail formard moments

Because the resource center provides so many different services, it sometimes failed to adhere to Housing First principles. Clients would come in with medical or mental health needs, and since many of those services were provided onsite, this would sometimes divert the attention of shelter staff from the desired result of permanent housing. In some instances, meeting these other needs by connecting with services onsite would result in longer lengths of stay which would then result in clients aging into chronic homelessness. This resulted in the community recommitting itself to the Housing First approach. A customized housing plan is now the central tool in all service provision at the center. 

For more information:

Contact Julia Orlando ( at the Housing Authority of Bergen County