Homelessness in America: Housing First, Then Support

It didn’t occur to David Pirtle that he was homeless. “I thought I was down on my luck and had to get a couple of things together,” he recalls of the two-yearplus period he lived on the streets.

It was 2004. Pirtle was 29 and living in Phoenix. But many Arizona cities have punitive anti-loitering laws, so Pirtle hitchhiked and freight-hopped his way to New York City.

“That’s where I had to start coming to terms with being homeless,” he explains. “I lived in an abandoned building in lower Manhattan. I couldn’t find work and started to lose hope. I stopped trying and thought, ‘I guess this is it for me. I know where I can find food and shelter. I guess I’m just waiting to die.’”

Thankfully, Pirtle didn’t die. He got lucky.

Pirtle calls himself lucky because he was arrested twice for stealing food from a museum gift shop in Washington, D.C. (New York City was too cold for the Arizona native). Because there were no public defenders available at the time, Pirtle was represented by a private lawyer who recognized that he wasn’t a criminal. He was mentally ill and needed treatment.

Thus began Pirtle’s journey from the streets to permanent housing, all the while getting treatment to find the right cocktail of medicines to manage his previously undiagnosed schizoaffective disorder. Pirtle was among a group who benefitted from a novel program at the time called “housing first” as the initial step of transitioning people from the streets to shelter.

“They wanted 25 people who were chronically homeless and mentally ill — and yay! I qualified!” jokes Pirtle. “I got keys to my apartment Nov. 17, 2006. I’ll remember that to the day I die.”

Today, Pirtle coordinates public education programs for the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). He’s one of the growing number of success stories when it comes to housing people experiencing homelessness. Organizations have been fine-tuning their efforts and coalescing around ideas that work for more and more people. The challenge, however, is that as people are successfully housed, more emerge from the shadows.

How many? Too many

On any given night in January 2014, there were 578,424 people without shelter in the United States, according to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development assessment based on local “point-in-time” counts. Sixty-nine percent were in temporary housing; the remaining 31 percent had no shelter.

The face of homelessness has long changed from that of the grizzled old man. Children under 18 made up 23 percent of homeless people, 10 percent were 18 to 24 years old and the remaining population was 25 or older.

By HUD’s counts, homelessness declined two percent between 2013 and 2014 and 11 percent since 2007. That, however, contradicts what Megan Hustings, NCH’s interim director, is seeing and hearing.

“Our estimation is that homelessness is and has been getting worse,” she contends. “The trouble is the national surveys aren’t really complete. So our understanding of the issue is more anecdotal.”

HUD’s numbers are contrary to data on the ground in Austin, Texas. “Homelessness is up about 20 percent if you look at the point-in-time count,” reports Ann Howard, executive director of Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

In Chicago, the Primo Center has seen a steady increase of families who need housing, roughly 85 percent of which are headed by a single parent, most often a female, reports CEO Christine Achre. The center operates two facilities with a total of 184 beds and a 12-unit apartment building; it also has access to 100 scattered-site housing units.

People who are homeless fall within several broad categories:

  • People who are chronically homeless – These people have been without shelter several times over several years. They tend to be single adults with medical or other ongoing challenges, notes Hustings. What works best for this group are housing-first programs. That’s the model for L.A. Family Housing. “Housing first means you eliminate any barriers to entry for someone to move indoors,” notes Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, the organization’s president and CEO. “You don’t require that people complete any program before you give them the dignity to live inside. You recognize that people can address their physical or mental health needs or the challenges they’ve been facing successfully only when they have a stable roof over their head.”
  • People who are transitionally homeless – “These people are often in some type of program,” explains Hustings. “You’ll see this model often used in substanceabuse housing. You go into a program, and after a certain number of days, you move into another program. All the while you’re receiving services to help you move onto the next stage of your life.”
  • People who are episodically homeless – More families fit into this category, says Hustings. “It’s folks who are working and fall behind on their rent, so they lose their house or are evicted.” When they get money either through a job or assistance, they’re often able to get back into housing.

What’s known as rapid rehousing has been successful in stabilizing families. “It’s like the housing-first idea,” notes Hustings. “It’s connecting folks directly with permanent housing or more stable housing, instead of an emergency shelter, and other support they need. Part of the program is prevention. Some folks are behind on rent or their electric bill; it involves giving small amounts of cash assistance to cover things that can snowball into homelessness.”

The key to today’s models is combining housing with support, commonly known as permanent supportive housing.

“With housing first, someone could say, ‘I moved them into an apartment and now they’re housed,’” notes Klasky- Gamer. “But for someone who has continual challenges, whether it’s their physical health or unemployment, you can’t move them into an apartment and say, ‘Best of luck!’ You need to stay connected and continue to enrich them with supportive services.”

L.A. Family Housing’s services include things like parenting and financial literacy classes, along with legal advocacy. Perhaps a veteran left the military with an other-than-honorable discharge; that prevents the veteran from receiving benefits. L.A. Family Housing may seek to change that discharge status to enable the vet to tap into medical treatment or housing benefits.

Patience and persistence are also critical to ending homelessness. Klasky-Gamer and other advocates insist that nobody really wants to live outdoors. Many have simply given up. Cracking their protective shell requires consistent effort.

“We had a guy who we call the wizard because that’s what he calls himself,” explains Klasky-Gamer. “From what we can piece together, he lived on the street for about 25 years. We worked with him for months to help him come indoors. He’d come in and go back out for days. It took about 18 months to build up his ability to live permanently indoors. He’s now in his own apartment. He’s so grateful, but it’s not like he was seeking help. We found him in our outreach and just built up trust.”

Housing: The cause and solution

Ending homelessness requires knowing why people end up without shelter. Advocates tick off several causes, but a dearth of affordable housing consistently tops the list. Klasky-Gamer says that’s the root of the problem in Los Angeles, where there’s not enough housing, and what’s available is simply financially out of reach for many.

In addition to placing people in scattered-site apartments, L.A. Family Housing develops, owns and operates permanent supportive housing. “We’ve built 20 apartment buildings throughout Los Angeles for very-low income, previously homeless, or at-risk-of-homelessness families,” notes Klasky-Gamer. “We’re committed to smart growth, and not just when it comes to density and access to services like parks or groceries. It’s also the design, including how that property fits within and contributes to a healthy neighborhood. We design our buildings so common areas like community rooms and play lots can be accessed by everybody in the community.”

Housing is also the main problem in Louisville. “The cost isn’t so high here, but we don’t have very much stock,” explains Natalie Harris, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. “Eighty percent of the people homeless here are short-term homeless. They’re just poor. A lot are single moms who just don’t earn enough money to make it every month. If you had enough housing, you wouldn’t have that problem.”

Holding up housing development, adds Hustings, is the permitting process. A recent project in the nation’s capital to create a 100-unit permanent supportive housing facility took seven years to just break ground. “Local governments could use an update of their permitting processes to expedite the building of affordable housing,” she asserts.

Advocates also say higher wages would change lives. “We’re never going to see an end to homelessness or have an impact until we fix the housing crisis,” contends Hustings. “But there could be a chicken-and-egg issue. If people made a living wage, they could better support their families. That definitely needs to happen, and the combination of both is just unlivable.”

Increasing the minimum wage is one answer, but the NCH argues for a slightly different approach: Indexing the minimum wage to an area’s cost of housing. “We’re in Washington, D.C., which is much different from a smaller, rural community,” notes Hustings. “Veterans who’ve gotten vouchers through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program have been struggling to get housing because their voucher covers only a certain percentage of the rent, and they can’t afford the area rent. HUD figures out every year what’s called a fair market rent for many of its programs. It would be a fairly easy calculation to make.”

Perception isn’t reality

Another challenge to resolving homelessness is the perception many have of the people they see in their neighborhood or on their way to work each day.

“For most people experiencing it, homelessness is just a poverty issue,” argues Pirtle. “People are paying too much for rent, and then they have some unforeseen financial expense, whether it’s a big heating bill or they’re injured on the job and can’t work for six weeks. But we’d rather think of homelessness as a character issue. It makes it easier for us to ignore it or pretend it couldn’t happen to us.”

Hustings agrees that attitudes shape the discussion in ways that harm people who need help — in some cases literally. Just search the Internet for “bum fights” and you’ll find videotaped attacks on vulnerable people for sport.

“That’s where public education comes in,” she states. “You’ll see this everywhere in popular culture, that there’s an attempt to dehumanize people experiencing homelessness. The use of the word ‘sweeps’ implies that we have to sweep them off our porch. And saying ‘the homeless’ makes it seem like being homeless is a characteristic inherent to somebody. It’s just something somebody’s going through.”

While people are experiencing homelessness, little efforts can help them maintain their dignity. “It isn’t that difficult to acknowledge people you see on the street,” contends Pirtle. “Meet their eyes and smile to let them know you don’t think of them as anybody other than one of their neighbors. The neglect we show our homeless neighbors is so damaging.”

Pirtle also suggests volunteering (not just on holidays), advocating locally for more resources, and donating to organizations with a demonstrated success in moving people from homelessness to permanent housing.

The Primo Center, for example, boasts a 97 percent success rate when it comes to placing people in permanent housing, reports Achre. Behind that statistic are real people, like the mother who had serious alcohol abuse issues. She and her teenage daughter had been asked to leave at least four shelters before they found the Primo Center. A crisis erupted one day when the mother became dangerously drunk and abusive to staff and other residents. After medically stabilizing the woman, center staff spent the next day counseling her on the devastating effects of her behavior.

“That was a turning point,” recalls Achre. “She accepted the assistance we were providing, and she and her daughter are now doing quite well. Working with these families and really seeing what can be achieved is something I’m really proud of.”

G.M. Filisko is an attorney and freelance writer who writes frequently on real estate, business and legal issues. Ms. Filisko served as an editor at NAR’s REALTOR© Magazine for 10 years.

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