Pathways to Housing D.C.
As James Allen slides a key into the lock of his Brightwood apartment, a small smile flashes across his face. "This is it," he says proudly. The apartment isn't much to brag about. One bedroom, with white walls, dusty floors, a tiny kitchen, and a sofa that's losing its stuffing. But for Allen, it's home.
"I really like my apartment," he says. "It's a place I can call my own."
Allen, who's 48, grew up nearby with his family. But it took him decades to get where he is today. He started drinking at the age of 7, and by the time he was 18, he had started using drugs. He spent 13 years on and off the street, begging and using during the day, sleeping on park benches or in shelters at night.
"The hardest thing about living on the street is always looking over your shoulder," he says. "The extreme heat. The extreme cold. And not having a place to call your own and lay your belongings down."
That's why he says he's so happy to have the apartment. Allen has paranoid schizophrenia, and every day is a battle against addiction. Now, when temptation comes calling, he can literally lock the door.
"I can open it up to who I want, the company I want to have," says Allen. "I can stay in the solitude in my house and don't have to be out in the street with the negative people, places and things."
Helping people off the streets
That, in a nutshell, is what the Housing First philosophy is all about.
"You house the family first, and then you wrap the supportive services around them once they get there," says Fred Swan, a family services administrator with the D.C. Department of Human Services.
The Housing First model emerged back in the 90s with a group called Pathways to Housing in New York City. Former Mayor Adrian Fenty introduced a version of the initiative in D.C. in 2008.
The D.C. program, called Permanent and Supportive Housing, costs about $23,000 for individuals, and $30,000 for families, Swan says, and the city pays for it through a mix of federal vouchers and local funds. Then, a network of nonprofits and providers offer support services.
"We offer them permanent housing and also the services to go along with that to help them stay in housing and recover," says Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC, one of those nonprofits. "The services are 100 percent voluntary. Those include psychiatric treatment, substance abuse treatment, finding work, reconnection with family, anything it takes to stay in housing and create a new life for themselves."
Respress says the organization even helps out with furniture, security deposits, and trips to the supermarket.
"We believe housing is a human right," she says. "It's the right thing to do. But it's the cost effective thing to do. People living on the street use a lot of emergency services. They use the ER very often for primary case. They're in and out of jail, for minor things, a misdemeanor that turns into a felony because they don't have a PO Box, so they miss their court date. So that's really expensive, as are shelters."
Swan says more than 1,200 people are now part of the initiative, and the program's retention rate is between 90 and 95 percent. But he says the program is also losing clients.
"We do have a number of clients die unfortunately," he says. "Probably at the rate of two clients per month. In the past, we've just refilled those slots. But because of budgetary constraints, we're not backfilling those slots currently."
Swan says he won't know until this year's budget process whether the program will continue as is, or expand. Meanwhile, the initiative has its critics.
"Housing first will go down in history as a great aspiration but a very poor public policy," says Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
He says a lack of affordable housing, in D.C. and across the country, means that only a fraction of homeless people are actually able to find homes through Housing First programs.
"I think we should think about Housing First as one of the tools in the toolbox," says Donovan. "We also need to consider an affordable wage, access to health care, and shelter while people are waiting for housing."
Even for Allen, housing isn't a perfect solution. During the time he's had his own apartment, he has fallen off the wagon occasionally. But he says things are different now. He's off drugs and he's working on his drinking.
"I'm making a step in the right direction of getting on my feet," he says.
And for the first time in his life, he says he feels like one of the lucky ones.
[Music: "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," by Gene Harris Quartet from Black and Blue]