Permanent homes for the homeless

In a shift, authorities stress long-term housing over transitional shelters and expand services for most needy.

The homeless families continuing to spill into the overcrowded US shelter system are helping prompt a major rethinking of the nation's strategies to attack the problem.

From the streets of the Bronx to the halls of the federal bureaucracy, the focus is shifting: from simply providing emergency shelter and transitional housing, to creating permanent, stable homes for families and individuals forced out of an increasingly expensive and competitive housing market.

At the same time, policymakers are calling for the development of more supportive housing – with services like counseling and drug treatment – for the most vulnerable of the homeless.

The transition has been underway for some years. Successful experiments in San Francisco; Columbus, Ohio; New York City; and five other states are now fueling optimism that the nation can make major progress in solving homelessness.

"We've learned from experience that simply providing shelter does not end homelessness," says Carla Javits, president and CEO of the Corporation for Supportive Housing in Oakland, Calif. "There's a structural problem where many people's incomes are simply too low to afford housing, and that's becoming increasingly clear."

The change in thinking is reflected at all levels of government. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced a new policy that shifts more funds into creating housing for the homeless. And this month, the US Conference of Mayors put the creation of affordable housing at the top of its agenda.

So has the Bush administration, which has now joined with advocates in calling for an end to chronic homelessness. In May, the Millennial Housing Commission (MHC) that Congress appointed in 2000 released a comprehensive analysis of the nation's housing stock, concluding that: "There is simply not enough affordable housing." It also pointed out that the poorer people are, the less likely they are to be able to find places to live.

"The commission was struck that there's a growing documented connection between the lack of affordable housing and homelessness," says MHC executive director Conrad Egan.

Over the past five years, research has shown there are two categories within the homeless population. The greatest number of people are "transitionally" homeless, cycling in and out of shelters fairly quickly because of the loss of a job or a family illness.

The federal government calls these people "extremely low income." Because they make less than 30 percent of the median income, they are the most at risk of homelessness because of skyrocketing housing prices.

While there's a perception that middle-class people also face an affordable housing shortage, a report done by the Department of Housing and Development last year found that the extremely low-income face the nation's only "true, substantive" housing shortage. It also recorded that for every 100 poor people in the country, there are only 37 units of affordable and available housing.

"Which helps explain why in Massachusetts we had 30 percent of the homeless people in the shelter system who were working full time jobs, and they couldn't get out because they couldn't afford to get an apartment," says Philip Mangano, now the executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, which the Bush administration recently reactivated.

A smaller number of people are considered "chronically" homeless. They form a small core group for whom the emergency shelter system has become a kind of permanent housing – including the mentally ill, the drug-addicted, and others with permanent disabilities.

Right now, Lakilya Merritt fits in both categories. Three years ago, in the grip of a cocaine addiction, she lost her apartment and her three kids. They ended up in foster care with her relatives, and Ms. Merritt cycled among various homeless shelters and the street.

Finally, she landed in a shelter for women that offered drug treatment and counseling programs in parenting skills and anger management. After successfully completing the program, she's now sober and reunited with her three children in a clean and comfortable apartment complex called Stratford House.

The complex is what's known as supportive housing, designed specifically for the formerly homeless.

The once-abandoned building that houses Stratford House was donated by the New York City Housing Authority. Its renovation was funded with a combination of city, state, and federal grants, loans, trust-fund monies, and tax credits.

The apartment house has on-site social services, and is designed to be friendly and supportive. It's got a library, a computer room, and a playground and park area out front.

"For some people. it's not enough to put them in an apartment and close the door. They need services, even if its just a safety net," says Jane Velez, executive director of Palladia, which formally opened Stratford House this week. "Some of the women here haven't lived with their own children for years."

For Merritt, the opportunity to live at Stratford House has given her the ability to contemplate a future for the first time in years. She's hoping to study computers in the fall.

"I kept looking for help in all the wrong places," she says. "For the first time I'm able to really start out fresh."

It's estimated that an additional 150,000 units of supportive housing are needed to deal with the nation's chronically homeless, which would be costly. For the Millennial Housing Commission, that seems like a "manageable and achievable objective."

"We can end chronic homelessness," Mr. Egan says.

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