Source: Lancaster Online
In a bold bid to end homelessness, a Lancaster coalition pushes rapid housing over shelters
Late one night in July, 15-year-old Steven May left a restroom in an Elizabethtown park after hours, unaware a police officer was watching from the street.
Suddenly silhouetted by the officer’s flashlight, the slight, brown-eyed teen froze. He knew running wouldn’t help.
Homeless for two weeks, frazzled and apprehensive, Steven and his father, Samuel, had until that moment avoided attention while living on the streets of Elizabethtown, a tidy college town of 11,600 not known for street people.
The father and son’s strategy was to keep moving, to not be seen carrying bags and to bed down behind two sheds on the dark edge of Community Park.
May, 55, bearded and burly, had decided sleeping on the ground was preferable to going 20 miles away to the inner-city Water Street Mission in Lancaster, where minors are not permitted to stay with their fathers.
On losing housing at the end of June, the unemployed and ailing May had one overriding worry: that child welfare authorities would grab Steven. The pair chose exposure to storms and mosquitoes over shelter and separation.
They became two of the more than 400 people who were homeless in Lancaster County last summer.
The county has 87 homeless people per 100,000 population, which compares favorably to Pennsylvania’s rate of 119 per 100,000.
But it’s still a rate the Lancaster County Coalition to End Homelessness considers too high and has worked to reduce. Driven by federal policy, the coalition employs research-supported strategies to move toward an ambitious goal of eradicating homelessness.
A new concept guides the effort. It is known as “housing first.”
The goal may be more aspirational than feasible because of barriers to adequate housing here for low-income residents.
But the coalition’s broad-based network of 81 social service and faith-based organizations is forging ahead.
Coalition leaders believe their efforts will improve the lives of vulnerable people while making communities safer and saving taxpayers the high costs unstable and unhoused people impose on human services, emergency rooms, police departments, courts and jails.
A turning point
On that night last July, when his son was stopped by the officer, May stepped out of the shadows. Fearing the worst, he told the borough police officer why he and Steven were in the park at night against the rules.
But to May’s relief, the officer didn’t cite them as trespassers or alert the Children & Youth Social Service Agency.
Instead, the encounter proved to be a turning point, linking the family to the Coalition to End Homelessness and a process that eventually got the Mays into their own apartment.
After that night, the Mays stayed at a budget motel, paid for at first by Elizabethtown churches, but then picked up by the coalition.
Coalition social workers then set to work assessing the Mays’ needs and helping them find housing.
Ten days before Christmas, the Mays moved into a one-bedroom apartment on an alley in Elizabethtown in walking distance of Steven’s high school. The coalition paid their first month’s rent of $495.
Meanwhile, the elder May, a long-time tire mechanic in Manheim who was healing from shoulder surgery in October to root out skin cancer, got a job loading live poultry onto trucks for Tyson Foods.
Throughout the housing search, May said, he felt listened to and respected. “Never once” did social workers “mention separating us,” he said. “They said, ‘We’ll do what we can to keep you together.'”
A family of two since Steven was an infant, the Mays are now settling into a normal life free of the stress of not having a place to call home.
Although the reasons for homelessness vary from person to person, the Mays’ story helps to illustrate the coalition’s largely unheralded work to try to make homelessness here a thing of the past.
It’s a goal delineated in a 50-page plan with 42 action steps and supported by a $2.6 million budget, mostly federal grants. And it comes with an ambitious target date: 2020.
At the heart of the plan, released in 2008 and updated in 2011, is the idea of “housing first.”
The gist of the plan
Pioneered in New York in the 1990s, “housing first” says homeless people with mental illness, addiction or other problems are more likely to lead stable lives if priority is given first to getting them into a decent and permanent place to live and then helping them resolve the issues that led to homelessness.
“Housing first” replaces the “housing ready” model, which tried to address a homeless person’s issues, however long that might take, before getting housing.
More than a decade of research, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is showing high rates of housing retention nationally among formerly homeless people who were helped through a “housing first” approach.
No longer facing the uncertainties and stress of life on the street or in an institutional shelter, the newly housed become more compliant with treatment, counseling, job training or other supportive programs, experts say.
Significantly, government funding of “housing first” initiatives is less costly than shelters and transitional housing.
“You can serve up to five times more people with the same amount of money,” said Mike Foley, research director for the county’s Behavioral Health and Developmental Services office.
In Lancaster County, “housing first” went from being a good idea to official policy when the county commissioners adopted “Heading Home: The Ten-Year official policy in 2009 whenAction Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in Lancaster County.”
Homelessness, of course, is not an isolated problem, but a symptom of broader, often intractable issues. Mental or physical illness, job loss or other crisis can result in the eviction of economically vulnerable people like the Mays who are left with no place to go.
“All you have to do is get one month behind (on rent,) two months behind, and the landlord can say, ‘There’s the door,'” said Helen D. Stoudt, president of Lodge Life Services, a Coalition partner. “It doesn’t take long before you’re homeless. I don’t think people in the community understand that.”
How it works
Jen Koppel, a deputy director of the county’s behavioral health agency whose position includes leading the coalition, said “housing first” operates on three levels.
It intervenes to prevent evictions. It finds alternate homes, instead of shelter, for those being evicted. And it moves those who end up in a shelter to permanent homes as rapidly as possible.
“None of this is easy,” Koppel said, “but we’re extremely committed.”
One measure of success will be a continued decline in the number of homeless people found during the twice-a-year counts the coalition conducts to assess the scale of the problem.
Last August, a single-day count of the homeless tallied 461. Of that number, 55 had spent the previous night outdoors or in a car, tent or other temporary place. The other 406 were staying in emergency or transitional housing, or, like the Mays, in grant-funded motel rooms. The total number was down 3 percent compared to August 2013.
A year ago in January, the winter count tallied 498, which was a 25-percent reduction from 666 in January 2009. The next count takes place the night of Jan. 28-29.
Another measure of success will be how well the coalition is able to meet a key benchmark for 2020: that 70 percent of people in a homeless shelter or transitional housing facility move into apartments within 20 days.
Currently, only 40 percent of those in a shelter and 15 percent of those in transitional housing meet the 20-day goal, according to Foley with Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
The bottleneck is caused by a shortage of affordable and appropriate housing.
One result is the coalition in the second half of 2014 placed 92 families, including the Mays, in motels. The average motel stay was 13 nights, and the average cost per night was $70.
The nearly five months the Mays stayed at the Red Rose Motel in Rheems was an unusual exception, Foley said. It cost the coalition more than $7,000.
The expenditure shows the lengths the coalition will go in sticking with “housing first.”
‘I want my chance’
A native of Falmouth, a riverside village on the rural northwestern tip of Lancaster County, May turned around a troubled life after Steven’s premature birth in June 1999. May said he was a substance abuser and did state time for selling drugs.
But May’s outlook changed on seeing his tiny baby, born three months premature, clinging to life in a sterile, neonatal intensive care unit.
“I want my chance” to raise Steven, May told foster parents who cared for and wanted to adopt Steven after he left the hospital.
May said he completed rehab, maintained employment, worked with a parenting trainer and won a court order for custody of his son.
May, on March 5, 2001, brought Steven home, calling it “the best day of my life.”
The single dad said he was able for years to provide a stable home for Steven, mostly in Manheim.
But in 2011, unemployed and convalescing from multiple eye surgeries following a car wreck, May moved to Elizabethtown as the caretaker of his ailing aunt. She allowed May and Steven to stay rent free.
The arrangement abruptly ended this summer when May’s aunt moved into a hospice facility and her home was sold.
At the beginning of July, May felt he had no option but to live on the streets. He and Steven each crammed a backpack with a couple changes of clothes, flashlights and water bottles, and they walked out of the house.
May called Water Street Mission, but hung up when told Steven couldn’t stay with him there.
May grew distraught.
“When you’re on the street,” he said, “you don’t have that hope of the next day going to be better. Each day gets worse, and you get more depressed.”
Steven called the experience “horrible.”
The Rev. Albert J. Domines, senior pastor at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Elizabethtown, was in his office one morning in July when his secretary said, “There’s a man here and his son who want to see you.”
The police officer who stopped the Mays in the park had directed them to the minister. Domines listened to the Mays’ story and called the 2-1-1 social services hot line.
Manned by United Way operators who get basic information from callers facing homelessness, the hotline is the gatekeeper to the county’s “housing first” response.
Domines let May speak with the operator. The operator then alerted the Community Homeless Assessment and Referral Team.
Within two days, a team worker met with May to assess his needs. The worker referred his case to Tabor Community Services, a Lancaster nonprofit that receives federal funds to help the homeless find housing.
Within a week Tabor’s Laura Willmer met May and began the housing search. In the meantime, churches, and then the homeless referral team, paid for the Mays’ motel room.
On Nov. 7, May heard from a landlord that his application for a one-bedroom apartment on Vine Alley in Elizabethtown was approved. “Steven’s going to be ecstatic,” he told a reporter.
Indeed, on moving day, Dec. 15, Steven jumped to the task of helping his father and uncle empty two pickup truckloads of furnishings that had been in storage.
With the trucks empty and the modest, second-floor apartment crammed with boxes to unpack, the teen chatted amiably about the deer he shot during muzzle-loader season, the bear his father got and the model cars they assemble.
May, taking a break before digging into the pile of boxes stacked in the kitchen, reflected on the end of “a long, hard journey.”
“I feel a whole lot better now,” he said. “This is home.”