New Address for the Homeless

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On a frigid February afternoon, a young woman --- we were asked not to use her last name, so we’ll call her Joan --- welcomes me into the small efficiency she’s occupied since last year. It’s sparsely outfitted – just a bed, a couple of tables and chairs, a bathroom and a kitchenette. But for Joan, it’s a giant step up from where she was.

JOAN: I was homeless for about two years.

Joan looks up from her dining room table with shy reservation, and explains she ended up on the street after suffering a brutal assault that left her traumatized, disabled, and unable to pay her medical bills.

JOAN: I was shot in the head with a 20-gauge shotgun. And then I was shot in the shoulder to save my daughter --- I ducked over her so she wouldn’t get shot.

And now, after the chaos and shock of that experience, she has found a measure of stability. Joan’s one of 40 residents in a new apartment building, called The Winton on Lorain, on Cleveland’s west side. It’s one of several similar housing units across Cleveland that serve the chronically homeless --- generally people with mental health or substance abuse issues --- under a relatively new model known as Housing First.

IRENE COLLINS: We try to get those people housed as quickly as possible.

Irene Collins is executive director of the Emerald Development and Economic Network, or EDEN --- which has opened seven such facilities in the past eight years. She says the idea behind Housing First is that people need to have a home before they can begin to work on other issues.

IRENE COLLINS: A lot of former models said people have to be ready to be housed --- you have to stabilize them out of the shelter into transitional, or something else, before they could go into permanent housing. We have found that permanent housing has a much more lasting impact and people are very successful.

These buildings also have medical treatment and counseling programs for residents, but it isn’t a free ride. Residents are responsible to pay at least 30% of the rent. In Joan’s case, that comes from Social Security Disability income. The rest of the money for the program comes from a combination of federal, state and county funds, plus the help of over 60 community partners. In order to live at the Winton or any of these EDEN apartments, a person must have gone through an extended period of homelessness and have a diagnosed disability. Once someone is housed, they have the option of staying there for life. While some might see that as overly generous, Irene Collins argues that permanent supportive housing is cheaper than the alternative

IRENE COLLINS: It’s much less expensive than having someone out on the streets where any doctor appointment would be at the emergency room, or checked into a psych rehab hospital, which is very, very costly. The cost of keeping someone in a shelter is a whole lot more than the cost of keeping someone in some kind of permanent housing situation where they are a lot more stable.

Army veteran Jesse Wilcox, spent a year and a half in the shelter system, which he says only intensified the cluster headaches he developed after his military service. And that led him into a life of substance abuse.

JESSE WILCOX: It’s so easy to make a mistake on something you think you control, it’s so easy for it to unravel and get out of control, and before you know it, you’re living in a living hell. It’s so easy.

He says he’s regained control of his life at the Winton. He’s gotten treatment for the substance abuse, and the headaches have subsided.

After nearly 20 years at the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Brian Davis says it’s nice to hear some positive stories about this vulnerable population. But, he says there’s still much more to do.

BRIAN DAVIS: I love the fact that we’re developing housing. Those buildings that we’ve created in Cleveland are beautiful, and for a segment of the population, they are the perfect place for them to get stable. But, at the same time, you can’t expect a small program with 500 or 600 units is going to change the face of homelessness. It’s going to take huge numbers of affordable housing units in our community to start reducing the population and eliminating shelter beds.

In the meantime, the Housing First advocates continue their efforts to free-up space in the shelters by getting the long-term homeless under a permanent roof. For all she’s been through, Joan at the Winton says she’s finally found some peace.

JOAN: To be able to cook on your own, and have your own things, and have your things not be stolen --- it’s nice having my own home.

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