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Learning From Each Other: Increasing WtW Voucher Utilization and Success with a TANF-Agency Partnership in Alaska

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Agency: Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) and Alaska's Division of Public Assistance (DPA)
(Size of WtW Program: 652 vouchers)

Challenge

The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation is a state housing agency that administers 4,100 housing choice vouchers in 12 regions throughout the state. It administers a 652-unit WtW voucher program in seven of these regions. Challenges facing the AHFC as it strives to maintain 100-percent voucher utilization and support the self-sufficiency efforts of participants include the following:

  • Program administration in a large geographic territory. Alaska's size, approximately one-fifth the size of the United States, creates administrative, financial, and technical challenges. AHFC divides the state into four regions, with an area coordinator assigned to each region to oversee program administration.
  • High staff turnover. Staff turnover affects program management, particularly for a program that is new, labor-intensive, and requires a high level of coordination among partner agencies.
  • High WtW voucher program turnover rate. Currently AHFC estimates a 45-percent turnover rate of families participating in the WtW voucher program.
  • Limited FSS program. Only a small number of WtW clients can receive FSS benefits because the FSS program is only available to families living in Anchorage and Juneau.
  • Limited funding. Like most WtW agencies, the AHFC did not receive any direct TANF, DOL, or other dollars to support the program, making case management and supportive service provision a challenge.

Solution: Partner with State TANF Agency to Provide Case Management and Support Services to WtW Clients

To address these challenges, AHFC partnered with the Department of Public Assistance (DPA), Alaska's State TANF agency, to administer the WtW voucher program. This partnership first resulted in the establishment of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that spelled out how the program would be administered through this partnership.

As program implementation began, both agencies learned through trial and error about what was working and what was not. New challenges and opportunities arose, and both partners saw the need to sit back down at the negotiating table and craft a second MOU to strengthen the partnership's effectiveness. The second MOU calls for the development and implementation of an Action Plan, which will ensure that both agencies work to achieve the MOU's goals and objectives.

Both AHFC and DPA agree that the program's success results from each agency's willingness to work together towards the common goal of helping WtW voucher recipients find and maintain employment. Success has not been fast or easy, but has occurred over time with much work and dedication of staff at both agencies.

Implementation

Key aspects and examples that illustrate how that partnership works include the following:

  • Collaborating to write the MOU. When developing the partnership, the AHFC and DPA met frequently to discuss their ideas about what should be included in the MOU. Even when they were not meeting, the agencies regularly exchanged ideas, proposals, and draft language. Both agencies freely asked each other for clarification as needed.

  • Assigning clear roles and responsibilities of line staff. AHFC initially envisioned that DPA would be responsible for referring eligible families to AHFC, but AHFC assumed responsibility for this due to staffing and other constraints at the state TANF agency. AHFC regional staff screens families, determines eligibility, issues vouchers, and leases families into the program. WtW families currently or recently receiving TANF benefits (within six months) receive case management services from a DPA caseworker. At the annual reexamination, AHFC regional staff monitors family adherence to WtW family obligations. DPA also provides WtW clients with childcare and transportation assistance to attend WtW meetings, search for housing, and attend interviews.

  • Sharing data to assist line staff working with families. The first MOU allows DPA to share family data with AHFC for eligibility and verification purposes. The second MOU significantly expands data sharing capacity by giving AHFC online (read-only) access to client data contained in DPA's statewide database, the Eligibility Information System (EIS). For example, at the time of the annual reexamination, AHFC regional staff can access the details of the family's TANF history, including progress made in meeting the goals and objectives of its individual TANF self-sufficiency plan to identification of non-compliance issues, sanctions, etc.

  • Designating a key point of contact. As outlined in the MOU, each agency designates one staff person to represent the agency and commit the necessary time and energy to make the partnership and WtW program work. As a result, these two agency representatives ensure that WtW is not put on the "backburner." Both agency representatives have been given the responsibility and authority to make the partnership work, including negotiating on behalf of his/her agency, raising and resolving policy issues, and developing and implementing policies and procedures.

  • Agreeing to disagree and compromise. First and foremost, both agencies are committed to supporting WtW voucher program families in their journey towards self-sufficiency. Because of this, they have succeeded in working together despite some philosophical differences, resource constraints, and competing demands. Each agency respects differing viewpoints of the other and does not let such differences lead to a break in the partnership. For example, AHFC and DPA initially had different views regarding who should be eligible to receive a WtW voucher. AHFC wanted to narrow its selection criteria to ensure eligible families are committed to meeting the employment goals of the program. DPA favored more flexible criteria. The two agencies worked together to determine that eligible clients must meet one of two criteria:
    • Currently receiving TANF benefits, is in good standing with TANF self-sufficiency plan, and is not exempt from TANF work requirements; or
    • Eligible for or recently off of TANF (within the last 24 months), provided individual is employed or in a recognized job training program.

  • Focusing on training and staff capacity building. As state agencies with broad geographic reach and high staff turnover, both AHFC and DPA share the enormous challenge of effectively and efficiently communicating priorities, policies, and procedures to front-line staff and supervisors. The second MOU ensures that front-line staff at both agencies is knowledgeable about and committed to the goals of the WtW voucher program by establishing a training component. For example, AHFC is in the process of briefing DPA case managers on the changes to the program, as well as on the basics such as how a housing voucher works, who is eligible, and local points of contact.

  • Providing a regular information exchange. The second MOU specifically calls for regular information exchange between the two agencies. Examples of this include the following:
    • As described in the second MOU, AHFC has implemented a new procedure whereby staff contacts DPA caseworkers to notify them that a WtW-eligible family is scheduled to be briefed and issued a WtW voucher. This allows the DPA caseworker to make immediate contact with the family to see if they need any help, such as transportation or childcare assistance, while they attend the briefing and search for housing. Recently AHFC has seen a 20-percent increase in briefing attendance and attributes some of this success to the early involvement of the DPA caseworker.
    • The AHFC is experiencing high rates of turnover in the WtW voucher program. Both agencies worked together to share and analyze information in order to better understand and address this problem. AHFC identified which clients left the program and why and shared this data with DPA staff. DPA staff then searched their database to obtain client histories for shared clients. The goal was to determine whether DPA could have intervened and supported these families, thereby preventing them from leaving the program.
    • The agencies regularly communicate to inform each other of changing needs and priorities, issues and concerns, and successes. Managers from both agencies meet quarterly to discuss implementation and review program status. In addition, staff shares information electronically as much as possible, including revised forms and procedures.

  • Marketing the program effectively. Only about one-third of Alaska's WtW voucher participants are currently receiving TANF cash assistance. Both agencies discovered that the program's name did not reflect the status of many of the participants who were no longer on welfare. So the agencies renamed the WtW voucher to the Work Incentive (WIN) Voucher to better fit the target population and create positive feelings about the program within the community.

Results

Success breeds success, and this is certainly true for AHFC's partnership with DPA and the WIN voucher program. The success of the WIN program and the strength of the partnership have resulted in more partnering opportunities and the chance to expand/strengthen services being provided to shared clients.

Building on this success, AHFC and DPA are looking to implement of statewide FSS program in Alaska. Due to staffing constraints, AHFC currently runs the FSS program in only two cities. AHFC is exploring options for expanding FSS by using DPA case workers to administer the program, through family outreach and case management. The idea is to use the WtW voucher program as a pilot, with the goal of offering FSS to as many shared clients (WtW and TANF) as possible. AHFC and DPA are working to develop a first year "model" program and then grow the FSS program to all seven communities administering WtW vouchers.

Contact Information: Jim Gurke, Manager, Policy and Program Development, Division of Public
Housing, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, (907) 330-8420, jgurke@ahfc.state.ak.us
Erin Tolles, Work Services Policy Analyst, Division of Public Assistance,
Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, erin_tolles@health.state.ak.us

Source: Presentation during the WtW teleconference call, "Strengthening TANF/DOL Partnerships"
(August 22, 2002)

 
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