In accelerating push to help homeless, some feel left behind

The US has made major strides to end homelessness. But by focusing on veterans and the chronically homeless, some worry the effort is diverting resources from other homeless populations.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Clifford Wade (right) stands with Martin "Doc" Marszalek in front of a shelf of donations at a camp for homeless veterans in Tucson, Ariz. Both veterans and formerly homeless, the two men now work to help connect homeless vets with resources and services, and keep them safe on the streets.

Catherine left her husband the day he threatened to kill her and bury her body in the desert.

Ending 22 years of physical and emotional abuse, she packed her bags and moved out with her daughter, then 15.

For a while the two managed, though money was tight. After her daughter left for college, however, Catherine began to fall apart. For six months, she worked delivery services during the day and slept in her 1996 Oldsmobile most nights. When she could afford it, she would check into a motel for a shower and a bed.

Finally, in September 2015, Catherine linked up with community workers who got her a bed at a local shelter. Four months later, they found her a studio apartment in a low-cost housing project.

“I was so grateful and so thankful to God that I had a place. Like, it was a bed. And it was a shower every day,” says Catherine, who declined to share her last name. “You couldn’t even imagine.”

Catherine’s story is emblematic of the success of a federally-led “housing first” approach to homelessness that focuses on getting people off the street and into a stable housing situation as quickly as possible. Nationally, the strategy has helped cut homelessness among military veterans by nearly half and chronic homelessness by more than a fifth between 2010 and 2015. 

But Catherine’s experience also exemplifies the challenges faced by those who are neither veterans nor chronically homeless – two populations that for the past few years have been the federal government’s focus.

Some community providers say that while they support that focus, it has diverted resources from the groups they serve – such as youth and families, those with HIV, and domestic violence survivors like Catherine, among others.

“When the [federal] government says, ‘Hey, community, you should be focused on these two populations,’ we have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we also have a system that integrates these pieces that are more oranges than apples, that don’t fit neatly into [the priority definitions]?’ ” says Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, chief executive officer of Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, which provides housing and other services for domestic violence survivors in the Tucson area.

Notable successes

The national shift toward housing-first aimed to end veteran homelessness by 2015 and chronic homelessness by 2017.

Connecticut in August 2015 became the first state to end chronic homelessness among veterans, and is now on track to house its entire chronically homeless population. Last Veterans Day, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced that the state had functionally ended homelessness among veterans. New Orleans, Houston, and other cities have announced similar breakthroughs.

Arizona’s Pima County, where Tucson is located, has the highest density of the homeless population in the state. The housing-first model has been crucial in taking vets and the chronically homeless off the streets of Tucson, says Clifford Wade of Old Pueblo Community Services, one of the largest providers in the network of some 50 or so stakeholders who serve the homeless here.

“You get ‘em in the door, substance abuse goes down. Their mental health issues decline. Their esteem goes up. You start seeing smiles on their face," says Mr. Wade, who spends his days driving around Tucson in his Ford F-150 looking for homeless veterans, connecting those he can to housing and resources. "They start becoming productive. I have got several clients that I took off the streets that now have jobs.”

Evidence suggests that people with faster access to housing are more likely to stay housed longer, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Clients who participated in another housing-first model, called permanent supportive housing, reported higher perceived levels of independence and control. Those who used supportive services also were more likely to stay out of trouble, attend school, stop substance abuse, and take part in job-training programs.

A strain on resources

For those who don’t qualify as veteran or chronically homeless, the story is a little different.

Catherine, the woman who had to live in her car for six months, served in the US Army for three years in the early 1980s. But because she was in the Reserve and never went on active duty, she doesn’t qualify for certain resources within the Department of Veterans Affairs – including homelessness assistance.

Wade, the community outreach worker, managed to snag her a bed and then an apartment through a different program. But the strains are showing. 

On July 1, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) cut nearly $600,000 in funding for transitional housing in Pima County. Because the agency encourages priority funding for groups that serve veterans and the chronically homeless, those that do not were the ones hit hardest.

For instance: Our Family Services, a nonprofit that serves families and youth in Tucson, had to give up units and transfer the families who had been living there into other programs and residences.

In the end, the group managed to keep all its clients housed, but the decline in available spaces means a longer wait for those on its waiting lists, says Laurie Mazerbo, director of homeless and housing services for Our Family. 

Longer time frames

HUD and the Obama administration have included a variety of homeless populations in their long-term plan to end homelessness. But acknowledging the different needs of each group meant developing an array of time frames to address their issues, says Matthew Doherty, executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness.

“The goals are not sequential. We are working on all of the goals at the same time,” he says. “But we have longer time frames for some [populations] in part because we recognize the different scales [involved].”

Some say it’s a pragmatic approach to a problem that until recently was considered intractable.

“Part of it is just sort of trying to set a realistic goal for when they would think they would have the resources and programs and coordination to reach the goal,” says Josh Leopold, a research associate on housing policy at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Even where efforts have fallen short of their targets, a better grasp of the problem has emerged, some say.

“I think we’ve learned a lot just in terms of how difficult it is to take a model that works and then try to roll that out and disseminate it widely,” says Ben Henwood, a licensed clinical social worker and assistant professor at the University of California’s School of Social Work.

To those directly affected, what matters is that they have the services and resources they need within their reach. Catherine says that her new place has brought an unfamiliar but welcome freedom into her life. Since moving in last December, she has transferred the apartment’s lease to her name and pays her own rent.

And while she still suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, she has managed to turn the studio into a home, hanging up photos of her parents and children and sticking inspirational decals on her walls. Her year-old boxer, Thor, helps make her feel safe by growling at any stranger who walks through the door.

“It’s still a struggle,” Catherine says. “I still don’t like people knocking on my door. I’m afraid I’m going to get kicked out. I’m afraid it’s going to be my ex.”

“But … it is such a gift and it is such a blessing that I have my own place,” she adds. “I’m not living in my car this summer and it has to do with [these] programs.”

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