According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, we are now experiencing a period when worst-case housing needs are at an all-time high.

While some communities are beginning to see reductions in chronic homelessness, in many others family homelessness is exploding and families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.

Many experts attribute the increase in the number of homeless families to a combination of welfare reform, high rates of domestic violence, joblessness, and a decrease in availability of affordable family housing.

Beyond Shelter is a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 in response to increasing numbers of homeless families in Los Angeles and the need for a more comprehensive approach to serving them. Today, the mission of the agency is to develop systemic approaches to combat poverty and homelessness among families with children, and to enhance family economic security and well-being.

At its inception, Beyond Shelter introduced an innovation in the field at the time–“Housing First” for homeless families (also known as rapid rehousing). This practice has since helped transform both public policy and practice on a national scale. Through this new approach, rather than leave families in shelters and transitional housing for months and sometimes years at a time, homeless families are assisted in moving back into permanent housing as quickly as possible, and then provided six months to one full year of individualized case management support to help them rebuild their lives (including jobs, childcare, and assistance in attaining improved social and economic well-being.

“L.A. is known as the homeless capital of the world,” said Tanya Tull, founder of Beyond Shelter, who said she didn’t realize that level of poverty existed until she moved here. Tull believes that the government’s approach of trying to get homeless individuals jobs and counseling before permanent housing is backwards. “That’s what the system has been doing for years. We kept building emergency shelters and transitional housing where families would stay for 30 days to two years. At the end of that time, families were often still homeless. First, they need a permanent place to live.”

The methodology is based largely on the belief that vulnerable and at-risk homeless families are more responsive to interventions and social services support after they are in their own housing rather than still living in emergency shelters or transitional housing. It is also premised on the belief that housing is a basic human right. Over the past 20 years, more than 4,300 homeless families have participated successfully in the Beyond Shelter in Los Angeles.

Over the years, Beyond Shelter has expanded its programs and services to include comprehensive social services, child development and welfare-to-work programs.

There are a number of different ways that individuals can help maintain the vital services that Beyond Shelter provides. Aside from cash donations which are tax-deductible and can be made online at www.beyondshelter.org, individuals can also give by “adopting-a-family” for the holiday season. Through this program people receive a family profile and a wish list and are able to help a family get through the holidays feeling cared for.

Beyond Shelter also has the K-Mart gift registry program to help these newly placed families furnish their homes, which in most cases have no beds, dishes and other household essentials.

For more information on the organization visit the website at www.beyondshelter.org.