The blog of the Urban Institute
May 25, 2021

Service Coordinators Can Support Public Housing Residents during the Pandemic Recovery and Beyond

The pandemic has underscored the importance of programs that stabilize housing and connect people to other basic needs, such as food and health services, in times of crisis. Public housing authorities (PHAs) continued to offer these critical supports during the pandemic. To keep their residents housed, PHAs used additional flexibilities granted to them, including quickly adjusting rents for people who lost their jobs and income.

In some public housing communities, knowledgeable, trained service coordinators are available to connect residents to local services to address their full spectrum of needs. The Resident Opportunity and Self-Sufficiency Service Coordinator program (ROSS-SC), funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), provides resources for PHAs to employ individual service coordinators to help connect public housing residents—particularly seniors, people with disabilities, and very–low income families—with local services.

Though many self-sufficiency programs emphasize educational and employment training and opportunities with the goal of increasing incomes, ROSS-SC recognizes that residents experience additional crises and challenges that are barriers to working and, for some older adults, to independent living.

Our recent evaluation of the ROSS-SC program reveals new insights about how service coordinators connect residents to services in times of crisis, in addition to focusing on longer-term health and education needs. Our evaluation surveyed ROSS coordinators in 2018, well before the pandemic, but their lessons on responding to urgent resident needs apply today. From our research, we suggest ways to improve and expand the program to increase effectiveness during the pandemic and beyond.

Service coordinators connect residents in crisis to critical services

The majority of ROSS service coordinators we surveyed in 2018 reported helping residents access critical services, stepping in to fill gaps where other systems had failed. These efforts went beyond HUD-required responsibilities, like fostering relationships with local employers and educators and helping residents set and pursue personal goals for economic success and independent living.

In addition to working with residents and property managers to prevent evictions and ensure property maintenance and safety, more than half of all service coordinators helped residents access food (81 percent) and transportation (75 percent), deal with health emergencies (61 percent), address domestic violence (55 percent), and access child care (52 percent).

Bar chart showing ROSS service coordinators work beyond HUD-required responsibilities to help residents access critical services

Health and education connections are key to recovery

In addition to helping residents experiencing emergencies, ROSS service coordinators we visited across 10 sites most frequently discussed how they connect residents to health services and education opportunities.

For older adults or adults living with disabilities, service coordinators connected residents to mental health services, substance use and addiction services, insurance supports, and exercise programs. One service coordinator, who worked with mostly senior public housing residents, brought community-based service providers and volunteer groups into the building to assist residents individually and to provide group activities to reduce social isolation. For younger adults, service coordinators also hosted employment training and opportunities in housing developments, allowing residents to access these services where they live.

Supporting older adults overcoming isolation from their family and friends and assisting residents who lost jobs or experienced reduced work hours during the pandemic will be key to both economic and social recovery.

To sustain the ROSS-SC program, support service coordinators and expand funding

Many of the service coordinators we visited shared personal stories of going above and beyond their job description to assist people, such as offering a ride in their own vehicle to overcome a transportation barrier or tailoring educational programming to accommodate residents’ child care needs. These coordinators undertake intensive, door-to-door resident outreach while maintaining relationships with local partners that can meet resident needs.

To support and sustain service coordinators in their work, and to increase the reach and effectiveness of the ROSS-SC program overall, we recommend the following steps:

  • Extend training, community building, and peer learning for service coordinators. At the sites we visited, ROSS service coordinators noted they had few opportunities to build community and connection with their peers. They frequently reported reinventing service models and community partnerships from scratch instead of learning from others across the country and then struggling alone when challenges arose. Opportunities to connect virtually and in person to share best practices could build community while strengthening professional practice.
  • Support lower-resourced PHAs with additional dollars for direct service provision when local service partners are in short supply. PHAs located in smaller, more geographically isolated communities often have less access to services, even when resident needs are still high. Supplemental funding to enable PHAs to staff some direct services themselves may be necessary to adequately support resident in these communities.
  • Adequately fund the ROSS-SC program and expand the number of service coordinators. The ROSS-SC budget is commonly zeroed out in proposed presidential and congressional budgets, perpetuating constant uncertainty about the program’s future. Supporting continuing appropriations provides security to PHAs, service coordinators, and residents that this essential program won’t disappear. Expanding funding to hire more service coordinators across additional PHAs would lead to more residents being connected to the local services they need to stay stably housed, live independently, and improve their health and well-being.

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