Bright Spot: Riverside, CA | Flexing Program Rules to House the Most Vulnerable People

September 19, 2019

Work flexibly with program rules ad requirements to support the most vulnerable people in your community.

Check out this bright spot if…

  • There are households in your community that need permanent housing, but have not enrolled in or “stuck with” a program because of program rule barriers.
  • Programs in your community have constraining rules that prevent them from serving the most vulnerable households
  • You want to try it!


Riverside used a flexible long-term strategy to house a client in a Permanent Housing program. The strategy involved thinking creatively about the program’s rules, as well as invoking the “reasonable accommodation” provision of the Fair Housing Act to forgo certain administrative requirements.

Program administrators invoked the “reasonable accommodation” provision of the Fair Housing Act to support these and other allowances for clients living with a disability. These allowances included both the rules of the program (such as spending a night in the drop-in center), and other administrative rules related to documentation. For example, when the client was unwilling to sign forms related to accessing the housing, the program interpreted the client’s acceptance of the key as an acceptance of housing, and documented that process according to the “reasonable accommodation” provision of the Fair Housing Act.

Key Action: Braid Different programs and services together to engage

Riverside County’s continuum of services includes a drop in center, funded as a Safe Haven, with co-located Permanent Supportive Housing. This model allows the program to fill vacancies in the supportive housing program from the population utilizing the drop-in center, and to provide low-barrier services to anyone experiencing homelessness.

One client, with a long history of chronic homelessness, had been attending the drop in center for food and for the opportunity to shower. The staff at the drop-in center was able to identify that the client was eligible for supportive housing, but had not yet been able to get him to accept the offer.

After a few months of engaging with him, the staff at the drop in center gave him the key to one of the units of supportive housing attached to the drop-in center. The key was presented to the client on a lanyard, and it was made clear to the client that he could use the unit whenever he wanted. Even with these reassurances, it took several months before the client chose to occupy the unit on a regular basis.

Program staff used a long-term, progressive approach with the client. For example, with staff encouragement, the individual used a stretch of rainy weather as an opportunity to store his belongings in the unit. Further, in spite of a rule against people spending the night in the drop-in center, the individual was allowed to sleep in the drop-in center one night. This allowed the client to acclimate to sleeping indoors. The client now spends most nights in the unit.
These tactics show the staff’s willingness to think creatively about the rules in the interest of bringing the client into permanent housing.

The key on the lanyard turned the key into a concrete possession that was difficult to ignore. Program staff treated the weather as an opportunity to move the client in gradually. Program staff also bent the program’s rules to allow the client to spend a night in the drop-in center where he was more comfortable. These are just a few examples of flexible engagement strategies used by the staff at the drop-in center and the housing program.

Key Action: Bringing the leadership along

Convincing leadership to adopt a practice of flexing rules in the case of a client with significant barriers may seem difficult. For Riverside, the argument rests on the goal of the program, to serve the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness, on their own terms. This requires a sober examination of the community’s constraints, and those of individual programs. Which rules are true constraints? Which have some flexibility in their interpretation? Which are constraints that we place on ourselves, but don’t derive from an official mandate? Community leaders must grapple with these questions in order to house some of the highest need individuals in their communities.

Two primary aspects of this Bright Spot should be considered for possible adaptation. First, the community should consider what relationships exist between housing programs, and programs that provide services only, such as drop-in centers. Does a hybrid program, such as the program in Riverside, exist in the community? If not, how could that program be approximated through stronger referral relationships or some other means? Second, the community must grapple with the constraints that exist in its current referral and housing processes to decide how and when program rules should be flexed.

Fail Forward Moments

Some staff considered catering to a highly vulnerable client a “waste” of permanent housing resources, when other clients might be more willing to use the unit on a regular basis. The program’s stance was that the program exists to provide housing to those who are most vulnerable, and that often means working with individuals who are resistant to housing. If the client is found to be eligible for the unit, that individual has the right to use the unit however and whenever they please. It can be difficult to make this case to program staff, but this shift in mindset is necessary to serve the most vulnerable community members experiencing homelessness.

Want more information?

Contact Lynne Brockmeir ( at Riverside County Mental Health.