One city's bold approach to chronic homelessness
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It's too soon to tell all the effects on Columbus's homeless population - a study is planned for this year - but anecdotal evidence is positive. Shelters that once opposed the plan, worrying it would mean a loss of resources for them, have come on board. Providers who expected high turnover found, instead, that residents stayed - and often transformed their lives.Skip to next paragraph
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At North High Apartments, a Rebuilding Lives project near Ohio State University that opened two years ago, the initial projection was a 50 percent turnover - but it's been closer to 15 percent.
"The tenants are very protective of the building," says Marla Taylor, the manager at North High. "They watch the building, keep the yard clean, take out the trash, and don't let people who shouldn't be here in."
Last month, a Christmas tree in the front room ("because all houses have front rooms," Ms. Taylor explains) had ornaments made by the tenants. They baked cookies together to take to area shelters. Residents often choose meals and contribute to them.
The building also has a few more rules than the typical apartment complex. Any visitor has to leave an ID card at the front desk (to discourage drug trades); overnight guests can stay for only four nights in a row; and if a tenant leaves the building after midnight, he can't return until 7 a.m. (to discourage drug runs).
Many residents may never live completely independently: While supportive housing is a stepping stone for some, it's likely a permanent solution for others, particularly those with mental illness. But staff here say they see growth in nearly everyone. Though there's no sobriety requirement, advocates say permanent housing can give addicts the stability they need to recover.
One resident here had already been through detox, but couldn't get a job because of his record. The staff put him in touch with an employer willing to overlook his past, and he's held a job (collecting trash) for eight months. Another resident, homeless for years, cleaned the building's floors without prompting. Now, he's paid for the work.
For some, change comes quickly. When Bingham moved into Commons at Grant, the new building downtown that serves both low-income and the formerly homeless, he was depressed and seemed on edge, recalls Ronald Smith, a case manager at the building. Now he's clean-shaven, wears a suit and tie daily, and rises each morning with a sense of purpose: finding a job.
"Staying at the shelter, it was hard to job hunt," Bingham says. "If you tell the company, they think you're not stable. And you can't take a second-shift job." He'd love to drive a truck, or work in warehousing. He's taken a training program sponsored by the Urban League, and he's been sober, he says, for six months.
Robyn Morris, the team leader here, says one of the best parts of her job has been giving residents a first glimpse of their new apartments. "They'd be jumping on the bed, opening up blinds. It gave you a chill to see how excited they were to have a place of their own."
Denise Cornett got that first view before she ever set foot in the building. "I cheated," she laughs. "I jumped over the ditch and looked through the window. That's when I prayed for the Lord to make an apartment available to me. I already had it decorated in my mind." One of the firstto move into The Commons at Grant, she now has art on the walls, votive candles, and a theme for each room. The kitchen is "old country," she explains, the bathroom is "beachy" with its frog bath mat and seashells. She's planned "rain forest and serenity" for the living room and "Afrocentric" for the bedroom.
She spent the holidays working at Red Envelope, an online retailer, and is taking Bible courses at the Vineyard Leadership Institute, an evangelical organization. She goes to AA meetings and is about to become group secretary. She points to the first piece of art she ever bought, knickknacks she earned with points from her drug and alcohol program, and a painting of fruit over the sink.
"If anyone had told me I'd be back in school, I'd never have believed it," Ms. Cornett says, looking around her apartment. "This is the first time I've ever really had anything of my own. With only my name on the lease. It's an empowering feeling to be able to have that, and build on that."