Overcoming Barriers: Identifying challenges for CalFresh applicants without stable housing

This piece was co-authored with my colleague Eric Giannella

Last year, the GetCalFresh team was surprised to discover a new statistic about our users: people experiencing homelessness make up over 30% of the CalFresh applicants we assist. We’re always working to improve outcomes for our applicants and surface their specific barriers to approval, so we decided to dive into the data to learn more about this population. We know from our work helping applicants to submit verification documents and report income that this kind of research allows us not only to make improvements to our service but also to surface the client experience for government partners as we explore ways to improve the application process for clients.

We wanted to learn more about people experiencing homelessness and their experiences applying for CalFresh benefits online. To do so, we interviewed 40 GetCalFresh users experiencing homelessness about the enrollment process, conducted in-person outreach to help individuals living outside with their applications, and analyzed 62,000 applications submitted in 2018.

Our report, Barriers to CalFresh for Applicants Experiencing Homelessness, highlights our preliminary findings on the barriers that we suspect especially affect this population. We are not claiming to be experts on homelessness by any stretch — but we are data-driven, curious, and want to shed light on the challenges people experiencing homelessness face when applying for government services. User-centered design is a key element of the work that every team at Code for America does, and we believe that every service assisting people without stable housing should be designed with the special challenges they face in mind. Our hope is that this early work will draw attention to these barriers as problems that require further study and eventually should be addressed.

Defining homelessness

Homelessness is defined as lacking a regular or fixed nighttime residence and may include living on the streets, crashing with a friend, or staying in an emergency homeless shelter for more than three months. According to CalFresh, an individual is considered homeless if they:

  • Have no fixed, regular place to sleep at night; or
  • Live in a shelter, an armory, or a welfare hotel; or
  • Live in a halfway house; or
  • Are living for less than 90 days in someone else’s home; or
  • Live somewhere that people do not usually live, such as a doorway, a lobby, a bus station, a hallway, a car, or a subway.

For our purposes, it’s also important to distinguish between two types of homelessness. People who are chronically homeless are exempt from work requirements in the CalFresh program. For someone to be chronically homeless, they must be homeless for more than six months, be homeless more than once in the last year, or report they are unable to meet their basic needs. Common among the chronically homeless are mental illnesses, physical disabilities, or substance abuse that prevent them from obtaining employment or transitioning into more stable housing. Situational homelessness, on the other hand, is defined as not having stable housing for fewer than 90 days. For example, a person experiencing situational homelessness may be crashing with friends or temporarily living in their car.

GetCalFresh applicants who are experiencing homelessness differ from applicants with stable housing in several ways. Users experiencing homelessness are less than half as likely to be working as other applicants (24% vs. 55%) and those who work earn less than half the income ($507 vs. $1,166 for solo applicants). The median applicant experiencing homelessness had $0 on hand, compared to $75 for the median applicant with housing. Those experiencing homelessness also tend to be younger than other applicants, are more likely to apply on their own, and are less likely to have kids.

Below are some of the key observations we drew from conversations with our users experiencing homelessness, and the larger dataset of the group they represent.

One adverse event can tip the scales

“I was in a bad car accident a year and a half ago, and I haven’t been able to work since then. I get a lot of migraines and it makes it hard to work. I was in the hospital last week and they told me to rest for three days. Itʼs hard to find a job that will work with you on that.”

There are many different factors that can push a person from a precarious financial situation into homelessness, but there is often a single precipitating event or chain of events that changes housing status. For instance, a person could be unexpectedly laid off from their job and suddenly find themself unable to make rent. Their employment status could also be affected by an illness or injury. Or they may leave their home — willingly or unwillingly — due to a separation or divorce, but not have the resources to secure housing right away. Empathy for people living at this tipping point is crucial for designing services to prevent a loss of housing or to help those who lose their housing to get back on their feet.

Most applicants experiencing homelessness are staying with friends or family

“I’m living at my ex-husband’s house. I have to leave in 60 days and I’m not sure where I’ll be after that.”

Application data shows that 53.5% of these applicants are staying at someone else’s home, 33.4% are living on the streets, 10.7% are living in a vehicle, and 2.5% are staying in shelters.

Of the 40 clients we interviewed, 28 were situationally homeless and most were either staying with friends or family, or living in transitional housing.

CalFresh allows an applicant to include a “Release of Information” when applying for benefits. This allows a trusted person to help an applicant complete the CalFresh application process. By signing an ROI, the applicant grants this trusted individual the right to receive information related to a CalFresh application like status, pending/missing verification documents, interview appointments, ongoing eligibility concerns, copies of related notices, and more. We’re interested in exploring ways that the ROI model could be helpful to those experiencing situational homelessness.

Verifying circumstances is difficult

Applicants experiencing homelessness face significant obstacles when it comes to the paperwork required to receive CalFresh benefits.

“I submitted my documents on time but was denied because they claimed I didn’t send them in on time. I tried leaving a message but have not gotten any calls back.”

In a previous post, we explored the ways that missing verification documents serve as a barrier to CalFresh applicants. And in the course of this research, we found that the proportion of denials for applicants experiencing homelessness was slightly higher (20.0%) than for those with stable housing (17.4%). Furthermore, the average person experiencing homelessness submits roughly 40% fewer documents than someone with stable housing. The longer someone has been experiencing homelessness, the less likely they will have all the verification documents they need.

Having examined the problems that even clients with stable housing can encounter with verification documents, we are keenly aware of the pain points in this part of the application process. And we know that it is especially hard for clients experiencing homelessness to obtain new documents within the 30-day eligibility window. In 2019, we plan to run an experiment with clients lacking stable housing. GetCalFresh will ask a series of questions about their ability to obtain specific verification documents. If they cannot obtain documents, we may help them submit a letter stating they lack other verification documents and can attest to their circumstances.

“I receive mail at the post office, but no one tells me that I have something to pick up. I try to go once a month.”

Mailing addresses also pose a particular complication for clients without stable housing. Of the 2018 GetCalFresh applicants without stable housing, 78% gave a mailing address that was different from their physical address. Among the people we interviewed, most received their mail at a friend or family member’s home. They rely on a phone call from that person to let them know when they’ve received a piece of mail that seems important like an interview notice or EBT Card. Otherwise, an applicant may receive mail at a P.O. Box, a county office, or not have a mailing address at all. Either way, needing to travel to pick up a piece of mail complicates the application process even further.

People who don’t have stable housing may not have reliable access to a vehicle, either, meaning they have to rely on friends/family, public transportation, or walking to retrieve mail. Finding a time to pick up a paper notice — about an upcoming interview, for instance — can take days. With a 30-day window for eligibility, just a few days can make the difference between whether someone receives the help that they need, or misses the opportunity entirely.

Mail-based communications aren’t the only problem

“I charge my phone every day at the library and homeless resource library. I just got this phone a week ago when the other one got stolen. It’s a new number now. I just get a new one when the old one is stolen.”

Clients experiencing homelessness also face increased challenges when it comes to phone and in-person communications. In our review of outcomes data, we found that 27% of applicants experiencing homelessness were denied because they missed their interview. Just as having to travel to pick up mail from a friend’s house is tough, getting to a county office can be especially hard for these applicants. And with the aforementioned complications around mail notices, it’s difficult to stay informed about when their interview will be in the first place.

Phone interviews may seem like an attractive alternative, but phone service reliability poses its own challenges. Common issues we’ve heard from other clients include needing WiFi for service, limited access to a power source to charge, and lacking access to a secure place to store their phone.

“I keep my phone on all the time and always answer unless it tells me that it says ‘scam likely.’”

But often the problem is rooted in something even more simple: they simply aren’t picking up the phone from numbers they don’t know. Many of the people we interviewed said that they won’t pick up a call from a blocked number, or one that is marked as “scam likely” on their phone.

GetCalFresh follows up with applicants 12 days after their application is submitted to see if they’ve had their eligibility interview, and only 43% of people living outside and 50% of people couchsurfing reported that they had. For a comparison point, 56% of people who rent or own said they completed their interview in this same window.

If someone misses their CalFresh eligibility interview, they do have the opportunity to reschedule it. But between the issues with both mail and phone communications, follow-up with applicants experiencing homelessness is particularly difficult. A one-touchpoint process for enrollment of these clients might keep people from falling through the cracks due to factors outside of their control.

Looking forward

Applicants experiencing homelessness particularly struggle with receiving mail, scheduling and completing phone interviews, and obtaining basic forms of verification. The instability of both their addresses and access to a working phone may also be prime drivers of churn for this population.

As a result of our findings, we have come up with a set of recommendations for ways that our government partners can help clients experiencing homelessness overcome these barriers. These include a self-attestation option for those having trouble obtaining documents, or an authorized representative model where people experiencing chronic homelessness could designate a trusted person to apply for benefits on their behalf.

Meanwhile, GetCalFresh is reviewing the clarity of our text and email reminders that we send to clients throughout the eligibility process. We also expect people experiencing homelessness will be affected by California ending the Supplemental Security Income cashout policy this summer and will share user research results in the coming months.


Want to learn more about our research and interviews with people experiencing homelessness? Read the full report.