Some Guilford chronic homeless get their own keys

by Jordan Green

Carrying a large plastic Macy’s bag packed with a new fleece blanket, a comforter and the kind of Indian shawl available at interstate travel centers, Vincent Sims gingerly picked his way up a handful of steps and let himself into the apartment, a two-room unit in a squat brick building about two blocks from Greensboro’s NewBridge Bank Park.

“I can open that door with a key,” Vincent Sims said after settling into a chair and lighting up a Newport. “When I was living in the streets, I would go into any building, and I could be arrested for breaking and entering. Everywhere I would lay my head would be illegal.”

He slept under several of the bridges that crosshatch Lee Street and the rail lines. He slept in a van behind what is now Club Remix for two years. Sometimes in “hurricane weather” he crawled into Dumpsters, choosing the ones containing mostly cardboard and taking care to avoid receptacles for medical supplies and rotting food. There were times when he might want to huddle with other homeless people for warmth, but body odor and snoring could prompt one to find his own “foxhole,” as could the possibility that a stranger might prove to be a thief or a rapist.

“I have a disability: I’m bipolar,” said the 47-year-old Sims, who dropped out of high school. “I have to have medication. My mind is not stable like other people’s. In all my suffering I could make fine wine out of my issues. All these healthy people, how could I know? I’ve never known what that’s like. People say, ‘You got a strong body. You got a strong mind.’ I don’t though.”

When Sims was homeless, medicating his mental illness meant resorting to street pharmaceuticals – crack cocaine. He’d been an active addict for longer than he’d been homeless, he said, and until Christmas he had been on the street off and on for 15 years. He completed a six-month prison sentence for drug paraphernalia in September and ended up back on the street. When Mitch McGee, housing support coordinator for Family Service of the Piedmont, met him last fall, Sims described himself as an “every-day crack user.”

“How much clean time do you have now?” McGee asked during a recent visit to Sims’ apartment.

“Two weeks,” his client answered.

“Two weeks continuously,” McGee corrected. Those might seem like unimpressive results, but the encouraging caseworker testified that his client’s clean periods were increasingly longer and rebounds following slipups occurred more quickly.

The Guilford County Task Force to End Homelessness – a group with representatives from local government, houses of worship, nonprofit service providers and the business community – released its “Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness” last June. Among its signature strategies is to implement a housing-first model targeted towards the chronically homeless, placing them in their own apartments with minimal conditions and then providing supportive services to help move them towards stability. To stay in housing they must meet two basic requirements: Pay rent and don’t get evicted.

Those like Sims who have been on the streets for more than year comprise only 10 percent of the overall homeless population, but consume half of homeless resources, according to research presented at a recent housing summit in Greensboro last month. The frequent hospitalization and incarceration of chronically homeless people, who typically battle addiction and mental illness, make it more costly to society for them to be on the streets than to be housed, advocates reason.

“When a homeless person gets sick, they don’t go to a family doctor; they go to an emergency room – the most expensive doctor in town,” said Martha Are, the state of North Carolina’s homeless policy specialist, at the summit. “And when they go there, they go by ambulance, the most expensive form of transportation available.”

Around the time the “Ten Year Plan” was released, three Guilford County nonprofits, Family Service of the Piedmont, the Greensboro Housing Coalition and the Open Door Ministries of High Point began placing homeless people in supportive housing. McGee outlined three criteria for acceptance: Participants must be homeless or living in a temporary shelter, they must have a mental health diagnosis and they must have a history of bouncing in and out of publicly-supported institutions such as jails and hospitals.

As of Feb. 1, McGee said, the three agencies had a total of 37 people placed in housing, with five or six more in the pipeline, and plans to ramp up to a total of 75 placements by the summer of 2009. By June the Jordan Institute for Families at UNC-Chapel Hill will likely have performed a cost-benefit analysis to assess the success of the program’s first year. McGee said an analysis of the housing-first initiative in Durham demonstrated a savings to taxpayers of about 30 percent.

So far four formerly homeless clients have had to leave the program, McGee said. The last week of January was a particularly rough one for the housing support coordinator. One client flunked out after he got arrested for drugs. Another was evicted. The landlord had offered to let the client out of his lease so he could hang on to a federal Section 8 housing voucher, but he caused a disturbance before the paperwork could completed.

“It was alcohol related,” McGee said. “He was a really crappy neighbor. He kept everybody awake all the time. When he drinks, he gets loud. At two a.m.”

Funding for the program comes from a 26-month $644,289 grant from the state mental health trust fund, which is administered to the three nonprofits through the county. About half the funding goes to administrative overhead, with the other applied to housing-related costs, including paying for rooming houses, for deposits on apartments and for rent until the clients’ federal Section 8 vouchers receive approval.

Sims received his Section 8 approval letter from the Greensboro Housing Authority on Jan. 28. Beginning this month, Section 8 will supplant state mental health funds to pay Sims’ $475 rent. Because his client receives $657 a month from the Social Security Administration for his disability, McGee said Sims must cover about $200 of the rent from his personal income.

Before Sims enrolled in housing first, his Social Security check would be spent on crack virtually as soon as it was cashed on the first and third weeks of every month. He still leans on McGee for help with budgeting.

“Vincent has to have cigarettes, a bus pass and plenty of food – things to keep him comfortable so he isn’t tempted to slip back into addiction,” McGee said. “He smokes name-brand cigarettes. He wants to have name-brand cigarettes instead of generic cigarettes. He got to set that priority.”

Now that he has a place of his own, several other things have to work out for Sims to break the personal habits that can shuttle a person back to the streets. He has been receiving outpatient treatment for his addiction three days a week from the Ringer Center on Bessemer Avenue since last summer. He also needs to develop a new personal support network to replace the one he left on the streets: Fortunately, an elderly lady has been picking him up to take him to church in Burlington on Sundays.

Another key piece is staying busy. Sims regularly volunteers at the food pantry of Urban Ministries, the agency that initially referred him to housing first. The downside is that his old friends from the street show up high, and sometimes begrudge his new status.

“I’m getting hated at the same time,” Sims said. “[They say,] ‘Oh, you getting too good for us.’ It gets very hostile…. It’s like crabs in the pot. I done fell out of the pot.”

When McGee left to go handle some business with the maintenance man, Sims’ mood took a despairing turn.

About his old friends from the street, he reflected, “They feel like you obligated to them. You’re family. How do you break family? It’s like mafia.”

And living in an apartment seemed to have done little to diminish his sense of peril and insecurity.

“It’s scary because you’re like, shit, muhfuh, turn on the TV and I bet it says five muhfuhs done kicked somebody’s door in…. I don’t even know if I’m living across the street from a serial killer.”

Asked what he needed to do to keep his new home, Sims was quick to answer: Keep attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, keep doing service work, keep going to church and keep hanging out with other recovering addicts. He is constantly reminded to avoid taking in old friends whose drug use might sabotage his new arrangement.

“I don’t have children; I don’t have a spouse,” Sims said. “It was given to me. The housing authority said, ‘You’re responsible for this voucher. All these people you used to sleep with in the street – you can lose it, but it won’t be their fault, it will be your fault.'”

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