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Barriers to ending homelessness seen from street

by Amy Kingsley

“Let’s put it this way,” said Terry, a homeless man in Greensboro. “It’s hard to dig a ditch when you’ve been living in one.”

Terry, who withheld his last name, has been homeless on and off for more than 10 years. On a Tuesday evening he gathered with other citizens from the bottom of Greensboro’s economic barrel, many of whom have been homeless nearly as long as Terry, for a bowl of bean soup provided by Food Not Bombs. He sat on a recycled railroad tie in a sunken urban park. Next to him sat JR, who had been discharged from the hospital the day before after a bout of pneumonia, and Lee, a former aircraft mechanic fallen on hard times.

Terry’s decade of street living puts him squarely in the category of the chronically homeless – a class of nomadic citizens targeted in Guilford County’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Chronically homeless people differ from other street dwellers, the majority of which are “situational homeless,” because the services intended to move them into permanent housing don’t work, usually because of underlying mental health or substance abuse issues. The chronically homeless represent only about 10-15 percent of the homeless population, but they use 50 percent of the resources, said the Rev. Mike Aiken, director of Greensboro’s Urban Ministry.

“The other eighty-five percent will make it through the crisis,” Aiken said. “They will move from the streets to transitional housing. [The chronically homeless] are the folks who just recycle and can’t make it through that system.”

The report, which was released June 4 after almost a year of study, recommends an approach called “Housing First,” where chronically homeless citizens are placed in housing, and then supplied with wraparound services to address mental health or substance abuse. Terry and the other street dwellers gathered in this park said they think the idea is a good one.

“I’ll tell you this personally,” Terry said. “It’s rough laying down out in the world and then waking up and trying to become a part of society.”

Having an alarm clock, a fixed address and a place to take a shower would make finding a job easier, he said. The plan advocates placing homeless citizens in the least restrictive housing available, which means those who abuse substances would not be required to maintain their sobriety, Aiken said.

In their report, the members of the Guilford County Task Force on Ending Homelessness sell Housing First as a way to save the county and municipalities money. An analysis of eight case studies of Housing First showed that the community saved an average of $10,830 every year for each individual who received services from a home instead of on the street. Homeless people tend to rely on emergency rooms and EMTs, which cost more than health clinics, and the criminal behavior associated with living on the street often lands them behind bars at a high cost to taxpayers.

Despite the cost-effectiveness of Housing First, a number of obstacles stand between the street and a safe, clean bedroom. Chief among these is locating landlords willing to rent to people with spotty rental histories. The program will use rental vouchers specifically for homeless people and the Section 8 program, said Beth McKee-Huger, director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition.

“The problems that make people homeless to start with – mental health, physical health – may make it difficult for people to live peacefully in housing,” McKee-Huger said. “Subsidized housing needs to be paired with services that stabilize someone enough to be a good tenant and good neighbor.”

Homeless people can make their own decisions about whether they want to accept housing, she said. But once they take housing, they have to comply with treatment that will allow them to keep that housing.

“Traditional subsidized housing programs have pretty strict rules about criminal history,” McKee-Huger said.

The rental vouchers specifically for homeless people are an exception, she said. People who sleep on the streets are often cited for trespassing and public urination, said Cara Michele Forrest of the Homeless Prevention Coalition of Guilford County. And those with drug problems, she said, sometimes get arrested for possession or prostitution.

Forrest said she’s concerned that homeless people with drug problems will be placed in housing in drug-infested neighborhoods where rent is usually less expensive. Crack addicts, who comprise a large portion of the homeless population, are particularly susceptible to relapse. “With crack,” she said, “if you’re around it, you smoke it. With permanent supportive housing for crack addicts, they can’t go into a crack neighborhood.”

Forrest, who said she supports the 10-year plan, is concerned that homeless citizens did not have a large enough voice in its creation. The task force hosted one forum for homeless citizens, and the participants asked for one thing above all: Jobs.

“It is very difficult to be employed if you are chronically homeless,” Forrest said.

Terry agreed. He said that people who live on the streets rarely admit it when they are applying for work. Lee, the former aircraft mechanic, said he is working with Grace Community Church to get back on his feet. Before he left the park for the friend’s apartment where he would bed down for the evening, he reflected on his situation.

“I think if you get someone a place to stay and some transportation,” he said, “they’ll probably stay on their feet.”

Then Lee wiped his face, put away his plate, shouldered his bag and headed down Spring Garden Street.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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