One city's bold approach to chronic homelessness

When Tom Bingham describes his new apartment, a slow smile creeps across his face.

The place is small - 402 square feet - squeaky clean, and bare. A metal-frame twin bed sits in one corner, a large, worn purple chair in another. But it has one thing that Mr. Bingham, an older man, has never known: privacy.

"It's the first time I've been by myself," he says, relishing the words. "You come from a family of 10 kids, like I did, and you're never by yourself. In the shelter I was with 120 other guys.... Now, I'm getting used to peace and quiet."

Four months ago, Bingham wouldn't have seemed a likely candidate for having his own place and paying rent - even his current $50 a month. He'd lived in a shelter for nearly a year, on friends' couches for years before that, and fought alcoholism.

But Columbus, Ohio, is at the forefront of a trend gaining momentum in cities: housing the chronically homeless - not those who need just a nudge toward self-sufficiency, but those who, like Bingham, have been homeless for much of their lives, who may never have been independent, and who often struggle with addiction or mental illness.

Proponents say it's not only good for the toughest-to-serve homeless, but also makes economic sense. And as Columbus nears the end of a five-year plan to transform its strategy, the rest of the country is watching.

Columbus's story "may foretell the challenges that lie ahead for other cities," says Dennis Culhane, who teaches social-welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania. In its size, its age, and its underused housing resources, he explains, Columbus is more typical of what most of America faces than are higher-profile cities like New York and Chicago.

The Columbus strategy is based in part on Dr. Culhane's research, which shed new light on the makeup of the homeless population. Studying shelters in Philadelphia and New York City in the 1990s, Culhane found that although the long-term homeless made up only 10 percent of the homeless population over three years, they were using half of all shelter beds on any given night. And when Culhane compared the costs of supporting those with and without permanent housing, he discovered that it cost a city just $1,000 more annually per person to offer supportive housing - with services for mental health, addictions, employment, and other needs - than to care for the chronically homeless.

"The emergency shelter system wasn't created for them," Culhane says. Only with permanent shelter, he concluded, would the homeless population be drastically reduced.

Columbus was the first city to put the theory into action. In 1997, with the city's downtown and western neighborhoods - home to much of its homeless population - slated for redevelopment, Barbara Poppe, director of the Community Shelter Board, approached the mayor about a long-term plan to tackle homelessness. "Those people who've experienced long-term homelessness, they're at the end of the line," she says. "This program was about, 'Let's go to the end of the line and rent to them first.' "

A turning point for her, she recalls, was a meeting of providers concerned for the safety of women who traveled daily from night shelter to feeding place, to day shelter, to night shelter. "The solution they came up with was to do a drive for umbrellas and flashlights," she says. "I respected these women, but I thought, I never want to do the umbrella-and-flashlight approach."

Instead, she helped create "Rebuilding Lives," a plan for 800 new units of permanent supportive housing, adopted in 1999.

There have been struggles. Finding money has been rough: It's a patchwork of federal, state, and city funds, donations, and debt. A not-in-my-backyard mentality makes it hard to get some buildings approved. Even getting the homeless to accept housing is sometimes a struggle.

But for the most part, the program has been successful. More than 370 units have been built, and 165 more will be ready this year. And Columbus's approach is now part of a blueprint for cities fighting homelessness nationwide.

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.

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."

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