It’s hard to focus on getting drug addiction treatment or finding employment without a roof over your head.
That’s the idea behind the national Housing First movement, an effort to house the homeless without making them meet often difficult requirements first.
After placing the homeless in residences, then caseworkers begin focusing on the problems that may have led to the homelessness, such as mental illness, drug abuse or financial trouble.
Advocates say the model works because they recognize basic needs have to be met before people can deal with more complex struggles.
Traci Strickland, director of homeless programs at Prestera, said under the old model, housing would come after the homeless met those requirements.
“I call Housing First ‘housing without hoops,’” she said.
Several people who work with the homeless in the state say the Housing First model is why homelessness reportedly declined by almost 9 percent last year.
Housing First in action
For the first time since 2007, Joe Carr bought groceries on Tuesday and put them in his own refrigerator.
“I felt better,” he said.
Carr, a 57-year-old Army veteran, had been homeless for years before Veterans Affairs placed him in housing.
He spent 21 years working for a state-owned printing press, before he says the state gave the work to inmates. He held down a few minimum-wage jobs after that, but he’d lost the work he enjoyed performing with a skill he had perfected. Most recently, Carr was sleeping under a bridge.
He has no clothes appropriate for job interviews, and no phone on which prospective employers could reach him.
But because the VA follows the Housing First model, Carr’s case worker didn’t require him to find employment before he could be housed.
While volunteers have come together across the state to implement the Housing First model, stigma surrounding homelessness is still rampant.
“I think a lot of people that have jobs, have homes, apartments, wherever they live, drive cars, average people, a lot of them see homeless people and they think ‘Well, that guy just didn’t try,’” Carr said. “‘That girl didn’t do what she was supposed to,’ or they think they screwed up somewhere. Some of that may be true with some people, but not everyone.”
Carr didn’t like panhandling, but he’d do it to get by.
“They’d roll down the window and look real mean at you and say ‘Get a job!’” he said. “Yeah, I’d like to get a job, but where?”
The decline of homelessness in West Virginia
Nationwide, homelessness declined by 2 percent, or 11,742 people between 2014 and 2015, and by 11 percent since 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development November 2015 Annual Report to Congress.
In West Virginia, homelessness declined by 8.8 percent from 2014 to 2015, and by 23.8 percent from 2007 to 2015. There were approximately 1,835 homeless people in the state in 2015.
Rachel Coen, project specialist with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, and Amanda Sisson, assistant director of the coalition, said much of the decline has been due to the Housing First model, as well as new outreach staff and the directing of resources to the most effective agencies.
Parkersburg, Morgantown, Clarksburg, Martinsburg, Beckley, the Kanawha Valley Collective Continuum of Care — made up of Kanawha, Boone, Clay and Putnam counties — and the Huntington Cabell Wayne Continuum of Care all have embraced Housing First.
According to the Point in Time Count, about 740 homeless people lived in West Virginia in 2010. That number increased to 877 in 2012 and had decreased to 432 by 2015. Volunteers conduct the survey every January by walking the streets, searching typical homeless gathering spaces, and working with agencies that shelter the homeless.
Some areas have seen more of a decline than others. The 44 counties covered by the Balance of State Continuum of Care saw homelessness decline by 36 percent since 2014, Coen and Sisson said. They said 120 people were housed over the last year.
‘One closed door after another’
Part of the reason for the stigma surrounding homelessness is a lack of understanding about the circumstances that create it.
Sometimes, adverse events create the homelessness. Sometimes, the person creates the adverse events that lead to the homelessness. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell which is which.
Rex Whiteman, president and CEO of Union Mission, sees every day that homelessness can affect anyone.
“Sometimes life is unfair and they’ve gone through a cruel situation — death of a loved one, their family, their kids. They’ve had a breakdown mentally. They’ve lost their employment. Just one closed door after another and they don’t have family they can lean on. You can’t name a profession that I have not met that’s walked through our doors homeless. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, school teachers, funeral directors. People from every walk of life, I’ve seen them homeless, because the bottom fell out somewhere along the way.”
For Daniel Dalton, it was a string of events, from being given up by his parents when he was 2, to living in a group home in his youth, to a friend being murdered in his apartment.
“Wounds that scarred me deep,” he said. “You build up walls.”
Finding a job seems like an impossible task when you’re dealing with paranoia and anxiety after a trauma.
“When he was killed, I just couldn’t deal with life very much like I used to,” he said.
For Monique Bird, Dalton’s girlfriend, it was an abusive relationship, then losing her children.
“That broke my spirit,” she said.
Both said they recognized that many of their own choices led them to that point. But the right choice can feel out of reach when you don’t have hope.
“I want everybody to succeed in life now,” Bird said. “I just don’t want that feeling of complete and utter hopelessness or abandonment, because adults can feel abandoned, as do children.”
Bird and Dalton stayed at the Union Mission for a time, but will be moving into an apartment soon.
“I just want people to know there was a point in my life I got tired of being tired,” Dalton said. “I got tired of not working and hurting the people that loved me. It all boils down to choices. I made the right choice and God was able to clarify my mind and make me realize I wasn’t being a man and being responsible and being a provider like I’m supposed to be.”
Their 1-year-old helped inspire them to get back on their feet.
“I wanted to be able to teach him you can break the cycle,” Bird said.
For Edna Gooch, it was growing up in an abusive home. She was a high school basketball star, but at home, drugs were a routine part of life.
“My dad used to beat my mom to the point it almost became a tragedy,” she said.
She started using at about age 10, and was eventually imprisoned for conspiracy to distribute.
“God put some angels in there to lead me back to Jesus,” she said.
She also credits the Union Mission with helping inspire her.
“They do what they do — help hurting people.”
Whiteman said the support there is often the push a person needs.
“There’s a sense of hopelessness and loneliness that’s overwhelming and to think that somebody cares and is concerned about them and wants to help them get out of their situation, that’s what’s really important.”
‘People don’t deserve to be homeless’
Whiteman doesn’t see that homelessness is declining, because the number of people in the shelter is consistent. He also has his doubts about the Housing First movement.
“You’ve masked the problem, but you haven’t fixed it, because they will be homeless again,” he said.
Strickland concedes the person also has to accept help after being housed.
But she also noted that the Housing First model even costs less. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, research shows chronic homelessness costs taxpayers between $30,000 and $50,000 per person each year, due to the repeated use of emergency rooms, jails and other crisis services.
Strickland knows plenty of success stories. It’s often a months-long process, but she sees people go from being homeless to working professionals. That isn’t the point, though.
The point is that no one, from an Army veteran to a high school basketball star to a couple with a baby, should have to sleep on the streets.
“People don’t deserve to be homeless, if you want to use the ‘deserve’ word,” she said.