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Housing First For The Homeless, Says Maryland Group

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Volunteers perform a Medical Vulnerability Assessment ona 61-year-old homeless man Monday morning near the Bethesda Safeway.
Markette Smith
Volunteers perform a Medical Vulnerability Assessment ona 61-year-old homeless man Monday morning near the Bethesda Safeway.

Antonio Elle has been homeless for three years. 

"It's a lot of stress on the mind and it's bad on the body as well," he says as he talks with a Bethesda Cares volunteer in downtown Bethesda.

Elle, who is 54, suffers from a mental illness and has been working with the community outreach group for more than a year to get permanent housing. Bethesda Cares targets the area's most vulnerable homeless men and women to help them get into stable homes. 

"You can't sleep properly when a lot of people walking around you," Elle says.

Through Bethesda Cares' Housing First initiative, housein becomes the first step. Then, outreach workers tackle mental and physical issues. This opposed to the other way around — for example, treating an issue such as substance abuse before securing stable housing.

Organizers say that in the long-run, the homeless substance abuser ultimately ends up back on the streets following treatment, and is at a greater risk of dying.

John Mendez, an outreach worker with the organization, usually finds people like Elle in the darkest corners of this upscale neighborhood.

"We're right under Wisconsin Avenue in the Bethesda Metro Center and this is a place where several folks will sleep every night," Mendez says. "Down here, sometimes they feel a little bit more safe. It's well lit. There's some heat that will come off the escalators."

Most of the people he finds suffer from what experts call tri-morbidity,  meaning they have mental health, substance abuse, and medical issues. But this information isn't usually taken into account in many public housing programs.

"If we have people who are homeless, how can they be prioritized for housing?" Mendez says. "Because, you're talking 95 percent of the people that are pulled from the low-income affordable housing list aren't even experiencing homelessness."

Bethesda Cares is trying to change that. This week, they'll be roaming the streets surveying the homeless in Montgomery County. The information they collect will then be entered into what's called a "vulnerability database." The person's age, number of illnesses and length of time they've lived on the streets will all be indexed. All that will be taken into account when prioritizing housing needs.

Two prior assessments helped to place 23 people into permanent housing programs in the last year and a half. The group plans to use results of this latest assessment to lobby Montgomery County lawmakers for more housing resources.

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