Free Press report on "Housing First" cites our supportive housing program

December 29th, 2010
Homeless man under a viaduct in southwest Detroit

Shelters try ‘housing first’ protocol to help homeless people

Free Press Staff Writer

An innovative way to help homeless people, called housing first, has dramatically shortened their stays in the South Oakland Shelter system based in Royal Oak and could make shelter programs statewide more effective, experts said.

By making permanent housing the first priority at the South Oakland Shelter and addressing other needs — such as job training — later, average stays dropped from four months to 28 days since summer, Executive Director Ryan Hertz said.

The organization houses an average of 30 men, women and children at a time, rotating them through 67 churches and synagogues, where volunteers set up cots and serve meals.

“We’re turning over our beds much faster, so we can help more people,” Hertz said.

But the housing-first approach has taken more than a decade to gain wide acceptance across Michigan because it requires homeless people, shelters’ clients, to have incomes, and there must be safe housing available that they can afford, Wayne State University psychologist and homelessness expert Paul Toro said.

No data exists in Michigan for how well the housing-first approach is working, but it ultimately saves money because “when people stay on the streets or live out of their car,” society pays heavily, Toro said.

In Detroit, Southwest Counseling Solutions used the approach to find permanent housing for more than 600 mentally ill clients in the last five years, Executive Director Joseph Tardella said.

“There used to be a linear approach — you get into a shelter, you behave, you start getting services and finally, you get some housing,” Tardella said.

“But some people don’t do well in shelters. And we found that as soon as people are stable in their own housing, then they will engage in getting the services,” such as drug-addiction treatment and mental-health care, he said.

In southeast Michigan, and probably statewide, only about 50% of shelter programs use the housing-first approach, said Tardella, president of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, a coalition of about 100 agencies. What’s slowing the spread of the approach is that “there’s still some push-back from people who say you shouldn’t try to house someone who isn’t fully committed to their recovery” from drug or alcohol addiction, he said.

Also, faith-based organizations often require a period of obeying rules before clients can get housing, he said.

Michigan shelters had “a slow learning curve” in adopting the housing-first approach, but the state and federal government pushed for wider acceptance in July 2009, when the federal stimulus bill provided $23 million for the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, said Michigan State Housing Development Authority Homeless Programs Manager Janet Irrer.

As of June 30, the most recent data available, the program had provided housing subsidies or other shelter help for 15,000 Michiganders, and 90% of those who left the program were able to sustain their housing without a subsidy, according to state data.

The Shelter Association of Washtenaw County switched to the housing-first approach in late 2008.

“This person is not in your shelter very long, but you’re still working with them — getting them furniture, getting food stamps, paying back utility bills, teaching them to budget, getting them job training,” CEO Ellen Schulmeister said.

But about two-thirds of clients arrive at the 50-bed shelter in Ann Arbor with no income, delaying their ability to obtain housing from an ideal 15 days to an average of 58 days, Schulmeister said.

In Oakland County, Charisa Green and daughter Iyonna, 3, needed shelter for six weeks — far less than the old norm of four months — before South Oakland Shelter found them an apartment in November. Now, Green can walk or ride her bike to her job at a Burger King.

“My rent’s just $640 a month” — less than the $800 a month “that was breaking me” at a motel, she said.

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