A giving heart: Providing housing first helps homeless the most
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Editor's note: This is the first part of a Deseret News series that examines how Utahns are empowering our poor in three areas: homelessness, education and health care.
OGDEN — The kitchen of the triplex is a disaster at the moment as the Christiansen girls — Victoria 9, Evelyn, 7, Julia, 6, and even baby Hanna, 4 — stir up breakfast to "surprise" their mom and dad.
They are making waffles and their mom, Angie, is smiling as the sweet smell wafts through the three-bedroom apartment where they've just moved. She's crying a little, too. But they are tears of joy. The family is cooking their own meal in their own space and they are together.
When they lived in St. Anne's Center homeless shelter not far from here, Angie's husband Victor had to leave them every night to sleep in the men's unit, one floor below. They couldn't cook meals, decide their own hours, or even enjoy the simple pleasure of making a breakfast mess and then cleaning it up.
As the girls cook, a puppy follows Angie from room to room. Avery is one-fourth collie, three-fourths lab and 100 percent symbolic. The little dog is Angie's declaration that this family will become self-sufficient — whatever is asked, whatever will work, whatever it takes. Though the odds sometimes seem stacked against them, on this gray, snow-streaked November day, she believes it.
They were homeless for months and it is too soon to declare their problems solved, though they have case managers and helping hands galore. Homelessness is a complex world with complicated solutions that drive Mormon and Catholic, Presbyterian and Muslim, believer and agnostic to work side by side to mend broken lives. There are government employees and nonprofit agencies, clergy and bean counters and visionaries all trying, together, on this one issue. And average Joes and Janes, as well, whose gift of time or cash or just stuff is as central to solving homelessness as any massive government grant.
You can look at homelessness in Utah a number of ways.
There's the data-rich view: About a half-percent of the state's population is homeless; that's 15,642 individuals at some point in 2010. Roughly 5 percent stay that way for a very long time, while most are passing through a really bumpy spell, but with help won't be there too long. The Utah Office of Education says 1 in 50 or 11,883 Utah school kids are homeless. That's a five-year high, according to the 2010 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness.
Plop them down among the numbers and you'll see that the Christiansen family is actually quite "trendy." Not only are they a homeless family — that's the fastest-growing segment of homelessness — but Victor, 34, battles some type of mental illness that has made things difficult for an otherwise intelligent man. Mental illness is a bit of a theme in the general homeless population, affecting at least 20 percent of those who are homeless. He's prone to panic attacks and anxiety and has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. There may be other issues; mental health experts are exploring it with him.
But he's also loving and loyal as can be and his wife calls him a "very good daddy" and her best friend.
She's trendy, too. Angie Christiansen, 32, has a couple of debilitating medical conditions including Crohn's disease and fibromyalgia that hospitalize her several times a year. Her illness was the beginning of their slide; she was a nurse's aide going to school in preparation for a career as a nurse when she got sick. He took too much time from work caring for the girls and helping her. He lost his IT job. Since he had become the primary caregiver, being separated at the shelter was especially hard for this family.
And like 82 percent of the state's homeless population, they live on the Wasatch Front, where most homeless are. They have bounced between Salt Lake and Weber counties. Grand and San Juan counties have lower numbers but the highest concentration of homeless in Utah.
You could also choose to view homelessness by peering first at its root causes. There are many.
"We serve both the homeless and the teetering," says Jim Pugh, executive director of the Utah Food Bank. "A growing trend is the working poor — people who have a wage earner in the home but are living paycheck to paycheck on very low wages. Then they have a sick kid going to the hospital or a car repair or other disaster and they have to choose between paying rent on time or putting food on the table."
The emergency food provided by the food bank is sometimes the thing that keeps the teetering from falling into actual homelessness, he says.
But many do fall off that cliff, spurred by a lost job that turns into a foreclosure or a reduction in hours that results in a loss of benefits that when followed by illness is disastrous. There are lots of ways to not make it financially.
The need for food, clothing and transportation assistance are what drive homeless people to assistance programs like the Welfare Square, run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says director of church humanitarian services Lynn Samsel. And the numbers are growing. They get 80-110 requests a day and plan to intensify their focus on "populations in transition": the homeless, those coming out of being incarcerated, immigrants and refugees, both in Utah and beyond.
Most of the families who seek cover at the several shelters across the state are "situational homeless," says Jenny Canter, director of the St. Anne's Center homeless shelter in Ogden. "Some situation has caused it and they've never been homeless before. They're not only worried about how to care for or feed their family, but they are not aware of the resources out there. It's a learning process."
Canter disputes the perception that homeless men are lazy and spend their days drinking. "The homeless are you and I. They may start with one problem, whether it's medical or a lost job, that spirals into this big monstrosity of homelessness. It's easy nowadays to become homeless."
The situation is fueled as well by a dearth of low-cost rentals. Where apartments were abundant years ago, Canter says, they're now often taken by struggling middle-income folks who perhaps lost homes to foreclosures. "The low-income have no place to go and if they're three days late with rent, landlords are sticking eviction notices on the door."
Many of them will stay with relatives, at least for a time. Canter estimates that for every homeless family, there are probably five "bunked-up" families.
The state's annual homeless report tells the story largely through the lens of the potential consequences: For children, the interruptions to schooling, to relationships with peers and mentors, to the exposure to dangerous or unhealthy environments.
And communities pay, as well, because homeless individuals are statistically more likely to use emergency services like police and ambulance and emergency departments. They sometimes have jail stays rooted in an outdoor environment that is sometimes violent and dangerous. Taxpayers pick up the cost of those consequences.
But homelessness is not a story devoid of hope.
Chronic homelessness is way down in 2010, free-falling largely because Utah government agencies, advocates and care providers have teamed up to create housing for those who have spent months or even years without it. Their "solve the housing first" philosophy has won national kudos.
"All of our programs are pretty much geared to do just that," says Jonathan Hardy, director of the Community Services Office in Utah's Department of Housing and Community Development.
Once you answer the question of where someone will stay tonight and tomorrow and next month, they're free to explore their other pressing issues and make other positive changes, he says. That question and "What am I going to eat?" can become the center of an unhealthy existence for the homeless.
"Housing really is the biggest concern and if the homeless have housing, it frees them up to look for employment and get the rest of their life straightened out," says Ronald Humphries, manager of field operations for the community services division of the LDS Church's Welfare Square.
Besides that, says Pugh, "the longer families stay in a shelter, the more likely the kids will become homeless themselves at some later date" when they are grown.
So homeless shelters and other agencies work with programs like Rapid Rehousing and Housing First. The programs are collaborative, the partners many, the interactions both plentiful and cordial. Rapid Rehousing, for example, is funded through a federal grant administered locally by Catholic Community Services. With the grant money, qualified families can find subsidized housing until they find jobs, get their medication needs sorted out or deal with other issues. Partners provide services like case management and mental health counseling. Like other families in Rapid Rehousing, as long as Victor and Angie comply with what their case managers ask of them, they have breathing room and can work on their issues in a place of their own. When they're stable, they will assume the burden for their housing costs.
The Road Home case manages people in housing projects like Sunrise Metro, Grace Mary Manor, Kelly Benson apartments and Palmer Court. Some programs are for families, others for individuals and couples. There are about 500 units in Salt Lake County specifically to help the homeless, Hardy says. Success rates in some programs approach 90 percent.
Still, needs continue to grow. Pugh says the food bank last year saw a 40 percent increase. And the crowd included a significant number who used to contribute food, but now must ask for it.
With the recession and high unemployment, he says, "the dramatic trend is alarming, but not really surprising,." Of those served by food pantries statewide, more than 42 percent are children under 18.
Finding long-term housing for the homeless, even serving them a meal involves the community, organized or otherwise. Some names are very familiar: Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, Volunteers of America. St. Vincent De Paul Center. Less known, perhaps, are programs like Family Promise, where a few homeless families are sheltered within churches on a rotating basis. A family might stay at a Methodist Church, where food is provided volunteers from a Jewish synagogue.
Sunday, when there's no meal at the center, Jennie Dudley's Eagle Ranch Ministry chuckwagon cooks breakfast under the viaduct at 500 South and 600 West. A week ago, in cold, wet weather, there were 39 volunteers serving about 250 homeless individuals, most of them men. Sometimes they serve 500.
Sarah Novotne, 16, and her friend Emily Boyter, 15, had gotten up at 5 a.m. to travel from American Fork with the youth group of The Adventure, a nondenominational church.
As Emily served coffee, Sarah printed neatly "Jesus is Lord" on the bottom and numbered each cardboard tray before handing it to people who had come to eat.
The weekly meal has been a Salt Lake fixture for nearly three decades now and it's a well choreographed process. The organizers know which table goes where and how much to cook based on what number tray is being handed out and they quickly dispatch the various volunteers to different posts.
"Aren't you cold," a volunteer asked one man, who unlike most of the winter-clad was wearing shorts and flipflops in the snow.
"No ma'am. I'm Mark Eugene. And cold is a state of mind."
The mass feeding opens and closes each week with prayer as volunteers man their temporary stations, cooking or cleaning up or handing out hygiene supplies. The crew is whoever shows up and if there are too many, some get sent home. But it takes a lot of people.
"Would you like a pair of gloves?" a volunteer asked a tall, reed-thin homeless woman whose hands were lobster red.
"I'd rather have a hug," the woman replied.
She got both.
Programs and agencies come in all shapes and sizes. It's also a work in progress, says Samsel. who notes that donations from the LDS Church run the gamut from $7 million to buy an old Holiday Inn Hotel and turn it into housing for the chronically homeless to vouchers so poor families can shop for clothes and furnishings at Deseret Industries. The church also donated $1.5 million to St. Anne's Center in Ogden, which is in dire need of better facilities. Now the center is raising the community-match portion of the project. They still need several million. Ogden City has donated land, Canter says.
Samsel's office often gets calls from the Road Home shelter regarding a homeless family or individual who needs help with transportation. Maybe they want to go home to Michigan to be closer to family that can help. Or there's a job, but no way to get there. Once Road Home verifies, the church program helps with funding.
They were, for a time, "doing a lot of housing, as well, but that's shifted back to the Road Home," Samsel says. "It's better equipped to look at the total community package. We were putting people in motels for a week or days with no wrap-around services or understanding of the total thing they needed. Three years ago, we shifted that back and provide support to the Road Home." They plan to handle transportation issues in the near future through a grant to the shelter, rather than working directly with those sent by the shelter.
"There will probably always be homeless among us, adds Ronald Humphries, manager of field operations for community services division of LDS welfare services. With intensive case management by the agencies that deal primarily with the homeless and lots of support from volunteers, donors and program partners, "some of them will be fixed, others will not be. But we can help."
Canter's convinced that if someone genuinely wants a better life, the collaborations can make it possible.
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