Kristie needed a lot of things — not the least of which was a roof over her head.

“I was in an abusive relationship,” the 31-year-old mother of three said. “I was literally on the run; didn’t even have clothes. I just left my house and never looked back.”

She and her children stayed temporarily at the Crisis Shelter of Lawrence County, then at her mother’s house and even in a hotel.

In the meantime, the shelter’s Rapid Rehousing Program was helping her to find her a place of her own, as well as nine months of rent assistance.

“It helped a lot,” she said. “I was coming from nothing. Having the rent help allowed me to get some of the other stuff I needed.”

Now finishing up its second year, the Rapid Rehousing Program is a grant-funded financial assistance program for domestic violence survivors. To be accepted into the program, one must be in the middle of, or a survivor of, domestic violence, who is in need of a new home.

“Through the two years we’ve had it, we’ve helped more than 40 families and individuals safely,” said Michelle Mathis, the Crisis Shelter’s director of residential services.

The program will pay a client’s security deposit and 100 percent of his or her rent for three months. It then pays 50 percent for the next three months, and up to 20 percent for three additional months.

“We take into account that over the last nine months with COVID and people losing their jobs or having health issues, we may need to do some flex payments as well,” Mathis said. “Certainly, the payment can go longer than nine months, but in order to maximize that money we try to stick to somewhat of a schedule to help as many people as we can.”

Rapid Rehousing, Mathis said, takes a “Housing First” approach to assist victims of domestic violence. It’s a model, the National Alliance to End Homelessness says, that “is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly or attending to substance abuse issues.”

The alliance adds that enabling the client to be involved in housing selection and supportive service participation is likely to make him or her “more successful in remaining housed and improving their life.”

Rapid Rehousing embraces both concepts.

Although the Crisis Shelter may aid in the search, clients are provided with a list of local landlords and encouraged to seek out a place that seems like home to them. It can be a house or apartment, Mathis said, but it must also be something that the client can afford.

“We always work with them with case management to remind them that we are not going to pay this forever,” she said. “So when somebody comes back and says ‘OK, I found a house and it’s $900 (a month),’ let’s take a look at your finances and see what that looks like, and if it’s going to fit your budget. In nine months to a year, you’re going to be off our program. Are you going to be able to sustain that much?

“Sometimes we have to say no; we have to say ‘We don’t feel that’s going to be the best situation for you. We would be setting you up for failure.”

That kind of support doesn’t end when the rent assistance does.

“June will be one year that I’ve been in my home,” Kristie said. “I still talk to my caseworker, even though they don’t pay any more. She is helping me with budgeting and everything.”

Rapid Rehousing’s second year has been more challenging than the first, Mathis said, because of COVID-19’s impact on rental properties.

“With the moratorium (on evictions), there haven’t been a lot of open houses or apartments,” she said, “so the case managers really have to work hard on finding good landlords to work with, and finding good homes for our clients to go into.”

While clients are conducting their searches, Mathis said, “We will also make phone calls. We do Facebook, we do Instagram, we do everything we can in order to find safe housing for our clients.”

Clients also have the option to house in place, if possible.

“Let’s say a client and their spouse are living in a home, and the lease is under the abuser’s name, and the abuser ends up going to jail,” Mathis said. “Instead of the victim coming to the shelter, or finding another place to live, if the landlord’s willing to create a new lease, we can support the lease so they don’t have to move.”

Although some landlords have declined to get involved in the program, Mathis said, most have been willing to work with the shelter “because of the guaranteed funding, because our communication is very good, and our case management is very good.”

And it’s not just landlords who are taking notice of the initiative.

“We are the first program in western Pennsylvania to do this,” Mathis said. “We work with other counties and communicate with them very well. We show them how our files are set up, we show them our spreadsheet that we keep track of as far as rent payments.”

Ultimately, Mathis said, the goal of Rapid Rehousing is to let victims of domestic violence know that they have options.

“If we can get people who are struggling with domestic violence housed in safe housing, then hopefully it will reduce the numbers of domestic violence,” she said. “If they know that they’re not in that position forever, that they have a chance to get out of that position and be successful — that’s why our program is so successful, because we shine that light.

“We’re here to say, ‘You don’t have to stay in that situation. There are options for you, and we’re here to help.”

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Dan Irwin is currently a reporter and page designer. He was most recently the editor. He started with The News in 1978 and spent 10 years as a sports writer. He's a '78 Slippery Rock University graduate with a B.A. in English.

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