Giving the Homeless Homes, No Strings Attached

Shuffling through some legal pads on his desk, Mike Milner finds the list.

On it are scrawled the names of five homeless men in Oklahoma City who died in recent months.

Milner, director of the WestTown Day Shelter, has seen the faces of those men in his bright, modern shelter. They froze to death, drowned, were hit by cars, or died from drinking.

They were among those who have made homelessness a way of life – the chronically homeless, who lose themselves on the streets for years, sometimes decades.

Their presence is now driving Oklahoma City and Tulsa to attempt something that at first glance seems quixotic: To eradicate chronic homelessness within the next two years.


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Tulsa has been involved in this effort for more than a decade; Oklahoma City began participating in January. Both are using a strategy developed in the 1990s, called “housing first,” that is still considered innovative and somewhat controversial.

But will it work?

Dozens of cities across the country are betting it will as they roll out “housing first” in pursuit of a goal, set in 2010 by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, to eliminate chronic homelessness by 2015. The chronically homeless are defined as those who have been homeless for a year or four times in three years and have a disabling condition such as alcoholism or mental health problems.

The housing-first model, pioneered in New York City shelters, reverses the approach traditionally used in assistance for the homeless. Instead of addressing first a person’s issues such as substance abuse, the model calls for putting the homeless in a home, no strings attached. Services are offered, but the clients do not have to accept them.

“There’s been a paradigm shift across the country, moving away from more temporary or transitional housing solutions for this most vulnerable of populations,” said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is helping lead the push for housing-first. He said many studies show housing-first is effective, in that most people remain housed and are less likely to continue substance abuse.

Supporters say targeting the chronically homeless also saves taxpayers money because people taken off the streets are less likely to be arrested and jailed or need emergency assistance, which consume public resources.

But there are critics.

Pastor Tom Jones, who heads Oklahoma’s largest shelter, City Rescue Mission in Oklahoma City, doesn’t believe the model will work for most who are chronically homeless and could put other people in danger.

“Somebody is going to get hurt,” he said.
***

When Jerry Lavon Rogers, known as “J.J.,” came to the WestTown shelter, he would announce his presence by hollering “Morning, house!”

Rogers, 63, was well-known within the homeless community, Milner said. He was a tall African-American man with graying hair and a boisterous personality.

 “He was kind of a semi-functioning alcoholic. He worked a little bit, cash-in-hand work where he could get it, then he drank a bit,” Milner said.

Rogers slept on Lynnwood Avenue, north of WestTown, under a truck trailer that he had tied blankets and tarps to in order to shelter himself, said Lee Sanders, a friend of Rogers who is also homeless.

Sanders said when he or Rogers got alcohol, they would give each other drinks. Rogers often worked an hour a week for a nearby liquor store in exchange for a bottle of wine.

“I guess him drinking made it easier for him to sleep outside, especially in the winter,” Sanders said.

Almost everyone who knew Rogers liked him.

 “Everybody would give him money when asked for it,” Sanders said. “He would ask for 50 cents and get $2.”

Rogers had been homeless for around 18 to 20 years, Sanders said.

***

About 6,000 people become homeless each year in Oklahoma City. Most leave the streets in a relatively short time, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the nonprofit Homeless Alliance, formed in 2005. At any given time, there are about 1,350 homeless people on the streets, and among those, about 250 are chronically homeless.

In 2010, the Homeless Alliance did a study of the cost of homelessness. The total cost per year was around $29 million, $14 million of which was for police work, fire response, emergency ambulance service, emergency-room visits and jail costs.

About 80 percent of the costs came from the chronically homeless.

Straughan said the Homeless Alliance and many other groups used what is known as the “housing readiness” or “treatment first” model, in which a homeless person’s mental-health and substance-abuse problems are addressed before he or she is placed in housing.

Last year, “we got to looking at that,” Straughan said. “That’s a model that works really well for 80 percent of any city’s homeless population. It doesn’t work at all, and, in fact, it can’t work, never has worked, never will work for this chronic homeless population.”

He said it is unreasonable to expect someone to put down the bottle or seek mental help when he or she is sleeping under a bridge.

“We were able to ignore it so long because in terms of numbers it’s small, but in terms of cost it’s way out of line with everything else,” Straughan said. So the goal now is to house all the chronically homeless. “As crazy as it sounds,” Straughan said with a laugh.

***

Often, Rogers would ask people to call 911 to have an ambulance take him to the hospital, where a warm bed was waiting.

That happened sometimes three times a week.

Eventually responders got tired of it and began taking Rogers to county lockup, Sanders said.

***

Greg Shinn, who ran a New York shelter where housing-first was introduced, came to Tulsa in 2001 when he heard the nonprofit Mental Health Association wanted to go full tilt with the approach. The association wanted to buy property and launched the first of two fundraising campaigns.

The group now owns 652 units for the homeless in 24 locations and 14 neighborhoods.

“We’re a property management company now,” said Shinn, association director.

When the association builds or renovates a property, it sets several units aside for the chronically homeless; the others are rented out, helping defray the costs. Any net revenue is put back toward services, Shinn said.

That also helps blend the homeless within the community and keeps poverty from becoming concentrated, he said. A network of 16 organizations provides services to the clients, including job training.

In 2012, 91 percent of Tulsa’s clients housed that year were still housed by the end of the year, Shinn said. In addition, nearly a fifth “graduated” from the program into a self-sustaining environment, he said. The Mental Health Association, which gets about $2 million a year in government funding for the chronically homeless, has won a national award for its share of the chronically homeless being housed.

In the early 2000s, the annual count of chronically homeless people stood around 250, Shinn said. Today it is 63.

“People have got to have their basic needs first,” Shinn said. “How can you talk about recovery, solving your mental health problems or employment, going to school if you don’t have place to live?”

Oklahoma City’s arrangement is different. Instead of buying properties, the Homeless Alliance works with the Oklahoma City Housing Authority to provide seven Section 8 HUD vouchers a month for the homeless, Straughan said. There are 184 candidates on a waiting list for a home.

The Alliance is part of a national “100,000 Homes Campaign,” organized by the nonprofit Community Solutions, which uses the housing-first model. About 185,000 communities are participating.

Services are provided through existing programs, such as ones offered by the U.S. Veterans Administration.

Each person has a case manager who encourages them to accept services and helps them navigate the system to find the right ones, Straughan said.

***

On the evening of Feb. 24, Rogers was seen staggering down a sidewalk near Ellison Avenue and 7th Street in downtown Oklahoma City.

A few minutes later, a motorist saw Rogers lying on the side of the street, police reported.

He was found with blood on his face and no pulse. He had no identification, but a police officer at the scene recognized him as the man he had taken to detox several times.

Paramedics revived a pulse and took him to the University of Oklahoma Medical Center. A doctor found he had no brain activity and was facing a “horrible outcome,” according to a police report.

Two days later Rogers died.

Investigators believe he suffered an unknown medical episode. A State Medical Examiner’s report is pending.

***

Jones, the pastor, smiles when asked if his policies at the City Rescue Mission will discourage homeless people from coming in.

When appointed president and CEO five years ago, Jones began requiring homeless people to seek a job, schooling, rehabilitation services and other means to find and cure the reasons they became homeless.

“When given a bit of pressure to make a decision to take responsibility, I’ve seen them take it,” Jones said.

City Rescue Mission is the largest homeless shelter in the state, with 640 beds and a secure, segregated shelter for men, women and families, backed up by services.

Jones’ thoughts on the housing-first model are unequivocal.

“I will go onto the highest mountain and proclaim putting a chronic homeless individual into housing prior to them taking responsibility for their addiction is simply dangerous, to them and everybody living around them,” Jones said. “People who are stoned or drunk do not always think rationally about how they conduct themselves.”

In many cases, the housing-first model may work well, such as when a person loses a job and a home, he said. But when someone who is used to building fires on the streets when it’s cold and getting drunk regularly is placed in an apartment, it’s not safe, he said.

Moreover, if a person in housing ends up back on the streets, he or she will feel a deeper sense of failure and hopelessness and will be less willing to accept intervention, he said.

The key to helping the homeless is to work through their problems first, Jones said.

“We see their lives changed every single day,” he said.

***

Rogers’ friend, Sanders, said he has found two dead homeless people in the past couple of years.

“Life on the streets… You can go any time,” Sanders said, his eyes lowered.

Sanders said he has applied to become part of the 100,000 Homes Program. The struggle to live day to day on the streets has finally taken its toll, he said.

He looked back up.

“I’m just sick of it,” he said softly.

 

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