Housing efforts aim to put homeless back on track
Published Sept. 6, 2008 in The Keene Sentinel
David J. LeBlanc 2nd considers himself one of the lucky ones.
After arriving in Keene two years ago, he spent six months living in a homeless shelter, several months living in his car and a night in the woods.
Eventually, a volunteer coordinator at The Community Kitchen, where he was volunteering, put him in touch with someone living in subsidized housing who needed a roommate.
LeBlanc made the transition from homelessness to permanent housing without wading through piles of paperwork and waiting on a lengthy list.
Yet many homeless people in the Monadnock Region are not so lucky, sometimes spending months or years trying to get into a permanent home – and their numbers are growing, according to officials at local human services agencies.
To combat the increasing need for housing, officials are turning to new initiatives aimed at putting the homeless into permanent housing quickly, then offering support services to keep them there.
Two such initiatives are Housing First — directed at permanently housing the chronically homeless, or people who are disabled or have mental illness and have been without housing at least a year — and Rapid Rehousing, which works to find permanent housing for families who have been in shelters or on the streets between one and six weeks.
Programs based on these ideas have been under way in several cities for years, with results local officials see as hopeful for helping Keene’s homeless population.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been putting one-third of its money toward permanent housing since 1999, and between 2005 and 2007 the number of chronically homeless people in the country has dropped by 30 percent, to just over 120,000, according to a recent study by the department.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are now 354 communities with 10-year plans to reduce homelessness, including plans in Nashua, Manchester and a plan covering the state of New Hampshire.
Ronalee M. Frost, an outreach worker at Monadnock Family Services’ Projects for Assistance with Transition from Homelessness, points to the achievements of a program in Portland, Maine, called Logan Place, which opened in 2006 and provides 30 apartments to men who had been homeless repeatedly or for long periods.
The program is shaped around the Housing First model. After rapidly taking people out of the shelter system, it includes services such as crisis intervention, follow-up case management and housing support services to prevent the reoccurrence of homelessness.
In the year after the program opened, the percentage of chronically homeless in the city was down to 19 percent, from 26 percent in 2006 and 37 percent in 2004, according to the city of Portland’s 2006-07 Consolidated Annual Performance and Evaluation Report.
The residents of the apartments also make fewer emergency calls, spend less time in prison, earn higher incomes, and many have joined substance-abuse treatment programs or begun mental-health programs since moving in, according to a report on the program’s Web site.
Frost said she’s interested in finding a way to implement the concept in the Monadnock Region to speed up the process of putting homeless people into permanent housing.
Meanwhile, Laurie J. Saunders-Jewett, director of homeless services for Southwestern Community Services, which runs three homeless shelters in Keene, is writing a grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for money to bring a Rapid Rehousing program to Keene.
If approved, Southwestern Community Services would help homeless families who have been on the streets between seven days and six weeks in finding private housing. The families would pay 30 percent of their income for rent, with the rest subsidized, Saunders-Jewett said.
“It will put them into housing and then provide case management and medical assistance for 12 months,” Saunders-Jewett said.
The program could help free up space in Keene’s shelters, which are being pushed well beyond capacity, and help people who can’t afford high rent prices stay in housing, according to Saunders-Jewett.
LeBlanc agreed that one of the biggest challenges facing homeless people in the Monadnock Region is finding permanent housing they can afford.
For him, falling on hard times in Springfield, Mass., brought LeBlanc back up to the Monadnock Region, where he had lived before. And while he thought it would only take a couple months to get back on his feet, he had a hard time finding a job that would pay enough to get by on.
A sous chef with experience in high-end restaurants, LeBlanc has had trouble finding work related to his experience.
“They’ll hire an $8-to-$10-an-hour dishwasher, but no one is looking for a $15-an-hour chef, and here in Keene you can’t afford an apartment and utilities and food on $8 to $10 an hour,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc said he continues to search for a job as a chef while volunteering more than 20 hours per week at The Community Kitchen and several other community organizations.
Dawn Christianson, a disabled homeless woman who grew up in Jaffrey and has been living on the streets in Keene since last March, said many homeless people in the area want to get into permanent housing but have huge obstacles to tackle to get there.
Christianson said even with help from human-service agencies in Keene, she’s had difficulty completing all the paperwork to get on a waiting list for housing.
In order to prove she’s disabled and needs a first-floor apartment, Christianson said, she has to visit a doctor she can’t afford.
She said she also needs to get some of the documents for housing notarized, but needs identification to do so and doesn’t have a driver’s license or passport. To make things easier, Christianson said, there should be less paperwork.
“Every time I get one thing done, I find out I need something else I don’t have,” Christianson said. “It’s very frustrating. And since I’m disabled and don’t have a car, I can’t get around very easily so it’s really hard. There should just be one form for everything.”
Frost and Karen Bednarski, an outreach worker for Southwestern Community Services, go out three times a week to find members of Keene’s unsheltered population and help them access food, medical services, shelter and search for permanent housing.
Frost brings paperwork for medical assistance and housing out to homeless people on her outreach visits, but says the Housing First approach would streamline the process, allowing her to find housing for people immediately and then work with them on other issues.
“I don’t know about you, but when I have to fill out a complicated form, I like to sit in a quiet place, at my desk, and take my time,” Frost said. “Imagine trying to do all this, without a full stomach, sometimes on very little sleep out in the forest or on a picnic table. And then you need a pen, too.”
And while Frost estimates between 20 and 30 people she’s worked with have found permanent housing since November — statistics on the number housed are not kept — she says it’s not enough.
“For most of these people, their lives are like a puzzle that’s fallen apart,” Frost said.
Frost said the people she works with often face the stigma that they are out on the streets because they have done something wrong. But for many people, events out of their control have stripped them of everything, and without family or friends to fall back on, they fall to the fringes, she said.
With this in mind, a major part of transitional program’s mission is not only finding permanent housing, but also helping homeless people become part of the community again.
“Social inclusion is a key part of the work we do,” she said. “They are intimidated by the average population, but to get them back into complete, full lives we want them to get housing and join the greater community.”
Frost and Saunders-Jewett agreed that the impact of high fuel prices won’t be known until winter arrives, but both expect the homeless population to increase.
“It has been holding steady, but I anticipate it going up in the winter because the campgrounds will close and people won’t be able to afford heating their homes,” Saunders-Jewett said. “This isn’t a problem that will fix itself.”
Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or firstname.lastname@example.org.