Bright Spot: Riverside, CA | Working Creatively to Obtain Housing for Individuals with Severe Mental Illnesses

February 28, 2020

Start enrollment and participation in housing programs while documentation is being secured.

Check Out This Bright Spot If…

  • Documentation and verification of chronic homelessness restrict individuals with severe mental illnesses from obtaining housing
  • 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.

Riverside county’s continuum of services includes a drop in center, funded as a Safe Haven, with colocated Permanent Supportive Housing. This model allows the program to fill vacancies the supportive housing program from 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 a good candidate for supportive housing.

After a few months of engaging with him, the staff at the drop in center gave him the key to one of the attached units of supportive housing. 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: Invoking Fair Accommodation

Program administrators invoke the “reasonable accommodation” provision of the Fair Housing Act to support these and other allowances for clients experiencing severe mental illness. 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: Bringing the Leadership Along

Convincing leadership to adopt a practice such as this one 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.

Fail Forward Moments

Some staff considered this 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.