The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 14, 2012

Learning from HOST: The challenges of trying to serve two generations

May 14, 2012

In March, I wrote about launching the Housing Opportunities and Services Together (HOST) Demonstration, an innovative project that is testing strategies that deliberately use housing as a platform to improve the life chances of both youth and adults as part of the same initiative. The four HOST sites are developing, implementing, and testing dual-generation service models that aim to address parents’ key barriers to self-sufficiency, while simultaneously integrating services and supports for children and youth.

One of the purposes of the HOST demonstration is to create a learning community that can inform other organizations trying to develop comprehensive community initiatives, such as Choice and Promise Neighborhoods, about the most effective service strategies. This month, we brought together the front-line staff from the four HOST sites—two of which are up and running and two of which are in the planning stages—for a cross-site meeting to talk about the real day-to-day challenges of trying to implement a true dual-generation approach to case management and supportive services.

The two-day meeting was as much a learning opportunity for the research team as it was for the staff from the four HOST sites. The dedication and passion of these front-line workers, who daily face difficult and frustrating challenges, was clearly evident. The meeting helped them see the value of their work and how the extra effort they are putting in enables others learn from their experiences. But for me, the biggest takeaway was that the hardest part of HOST is attempting to implement high-quality dual-generation service approaches. Most service approaches in public or assisted housing have focused primarily on adults—trying to help them move toward self-sufficiency with the hope that those improvements will benefit the whole family. However, it is increasingly clear that in distressed communities like the four HOST sites, it is critical to directly reach children and youth with the kinds of services that will help them fare better than their parents.

We learned from listening to the HOST service team that, in practice, implementing this kind of dual-generation approach requires a high level of creativity and initiative. Engaging children and youth means working with a range of ages and needs. It also means earning parents’ trust so that they will permit their children to participate—a challenge that can be even harder in sites with diverse immigrant populations with different norms and expectations. The sites are providing services like parenting support and girls and boys groups that offer clinical services and build leadership while offering fun and engaging activities. One site is using an innovative approach that rewards children (and parents) for setting and achieving goals. An issue facing all sites is how to address the critical needs of very young children and encourage parents to take advantage of opportunities for early childhood education. And, finally, implementing a true dual-generation approach requires constant coordination and cooperation among providers, both within the same agency and among different providers serving adults and children.

HOST is providing a true laboratory for learning about the most effective strategies for improving the life chances of vulnerable families. The project has already yielded lessons about the real challenges behind the current push for “housing as a platform” and “dual-generation service models”—lessons that will help inform larger efforts, such as Choice and Promise Neighborhoods, and help ensure that we know what it takes to help children succeed.

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