City sees traction in ‘Housing First’ program

Ten homeless adults and two children are now settled in apartments or rented houses, safe, sleeping comfortably indoors and receiving crucial services, from health care to counseling, thanks to Salisbury’s Housing First program.

With the goal of reintegrating them into the community, the program, bolstered with $76,000 in city funding, began July 1 last year. Homeless men, women and children were identified by partnering organizations such as Help and Outreach Point of Entry, known as HOPE, churches and the county health department and offered housing in exchange for paying 30 percent of their income each month.

They receive income from Social Security, disability or veterans’ benefits. Disability is capped at $735 per month and no more than $700 rent will be charged per month.

At a press conference last week, Mayor Jake Day said the chronically homeless were targeted, meaning they had been sleeping in a shelter, outdoors or places unsuitable for human habitation for a year or more.

The city hired Theo Williams as Housing and Homelessness Manager and Christine Chestnutt as Case Manager.

Williams, at the news conference, said the 12 being helped include two families, a mother and son and grandmother and granddaughter. “The rest are single households and we are working with potential couples,” he said.

Not everyone offered an apartment will be responsive, “but I think it’s a pretty good offer,” Day said.

“Somebody is willing to pay most of the costs of your housing for as long as you need it, provide help getting to medical appointments and give you the regularity of having an address,” he said.

Traditionally, the homeless have been referred to local police or medical providers. They’ve been taken to emergency rooms or even sent to jail. Since Housing First, the city has had a 100 percent success rate providing treatment to participants with no arrests, emergency medical calls or avoidable emergency room visits, the mayor said.

“In the past, the city was not really part of the team that helped the homeless,” Day said. “We started to listen. We started to learn. This program simply does this: it places housing first before addressing other problems. That doesn’t mean it’s the only approach to the problem but I think it’s a pretty good approach.”

A video played at the news conference showed a homeless woman saying she lost her residence after interest rates increased and her hours were cut at work.  She said she never realized how naïve she was about society until she lost her home.

A man who couldn’t work due to a debilitating condition that affected his hips said he found it takes the entire community to address the problem.

“My self-esteem just went down,” another man said. “I felt downtrodden, like nobody wanted to help me, but I found people do want to help me and I’m very thankful,” he said.

“By housing them, by giving them a roof over their heads, but giving them dignity, I think we found we’ve got a starting point,” Day said in the video.

In other states, Housing First has been successful and saved money formerly spent on incarceration, emergency department bills and overtime hours for police officers.

“It’s not just about the finances. It’s obviously about the human aspect of this. Our community has long been aware of the problem of homelessness,” Day said.

While the homeless are often seen walking along railroad tracks and Route 13, “the truly homeless are buried deeply in the community, in tents and woods,” Day said.

“Many of them have dealt with a mental health challenge. Many of them have dealt with a substance abuse problem. These people have been on the streets for years. I think the average is four or five years. They struggle with their mental health. They struggle with substance abuse,” he said.

“There are few things you can accomplish without housing,” Williams added. “It’s not housing only. It’s housing first. We are not putting chronically homeless people in a house and leaving them. We are providing them intense, weekly home visits … we are providing services to be sure homelessness doesn’t occur again,” he said.

There is money in the city’s fiscal 2018 budget to expand by three to four housing vouchers, and the city has applied for federal funding to add two more. Partnering organizations will continue to help. Furniture and other household and personal items have been donated by the Salvation Army, Olde Towne Deli, HOPE and other organizations and the public can donate by calling Williams at 410-341-9550.

“Many of our homeless began needing help during the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009,” Day said.

“I want to believe that we’re on our way out of it, that those people who have been hurt the worst are on their way out of it … I believe wholeheartedly that Housing First has to be part of the solution.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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