Seeking Shelter: Homeless housing projects in other states could be a model for Concord

Seeking Shelter: Homeless housing projects in other states could be a model for Concord

With phones in hand, Nicole Minerva (left) and shelter director Terry Blake (right) go through every possible option Minervaâ??s homeless family might have to avoid sleeping in their car that cold night, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014.

(ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) With phones in hand, Nicole Minerva (left) and shelter director Terry Blake (right) go through every possible option Minervaâ??s homeless family might have to avoid sleeping in their car that cold night, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

By MEGAN DOYLE and JEREMY BLACKMAN

Monitor staff

Wednesday, December 17, 2014
(Published in print: Wednesday, December 17, 2014)
At Beijing & Tokyo in Concord on a rainy summer afternoon, Brian Herra and Craig Laber had beer for lunch.

The pair drank more than they ate during the meal with a friend, who picked up the tab. The cans were a dose of self-medication, before the men returned to their signs and street corners. Herra and Laber were 51 and 52, respectively. Herra was five years homeless; Laber, seven.

Every morning, they woke up to another day of dodging the police, scraping for a drive-by dollar and camping in makeshift shelters. Sobriety wasn’t something they sought while they had no place to call their own, no hope except for beer money to get them through the night.

“Give us a home,” Laber said. “Stop bothering us.”

It could happen.

Among those leaders is Ellen Groh, executive director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. In August, she gathered together a room of service providers, shelter volunteers and organizers, police officers and interested community members at First Congregational Church. One floor above the basement that hosts the church’s winter shelter, she wanted to talk strategy.

“I think for a lot of people, the thought of these churches not running these shelters raises a huge amount of anxiety,” Groh said. “I think a very gut response is, well, what church is going to step in? . . . I think another response is, let’s go pound on the city’s doors and get them to open a shelter.”

Instead, Groh said her own hope is “to reduce the need for these cold weather shelters.”

Last year, the city’s two cold weather shelters served 166 unique guests in about 100 nights. Between the shelters’ combined 68 beds, 35 people stayed two months or more. That number is up dramatically from 23 and 20 in the previous two years, respectively.

A small but increasing sector of the homeless population is using more than half of the shelters’ beds and resources. Those 35 people are Concord’s most vulnerable population and greatest drain on services – shelters, first responders, emergency rooms and jails.

Most other guests stay for two weeks or less, passing through in the midst of temporary crisis.

“If we could permanently house those 35 people, we would be looking at an entirely different dynamic at the cold weather shelters,” Groh said.

To do so, the coalition has collected ideas from across the country. In New Hampshire, the state is pushing service providers toward what is called a “coordinated assessment,” which requires them to use a uniform intake questionnaire and share data with each other. This approach is designed to streamline a scattered network of resources for the homeless and get individuals housed more quickly.

The coalition is also looking toward rapid re-housing, which aims to get a homeless individual or family back into a home within 30 days of losing one. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been putting money into rapid re-housing programs since 2008, and this strategy has reduced the number of homeless in larger cities like Memphis, Tenn., and Spokane, Wash.

But the option that has gained the most traction in Concord is a Housing First model, a strategy that puts a roof over a homeless person’s head with no questions asked, no strings attached. Then, the tenant is surrounded by services he or she might need to stay housed long term. Other states, including Oregon, Utah and Maine, have embraced Housing First or similar supportive housing programs.

A model in Maine

Cullen Ryan knocked on an apartment door in Portland, Maine, and a squat, smiling man opened the door. George Hall ushered his guests into his home in the building called Elm Terrace, where he said he pays $325 out of his $721 monthly check for rent. A bowl of Rolos sat on the coffee table in his living area. He moved in a little more than a year before.

“I was on the streets for about a year, homeless and living out of my suitcase down there,” said Hall, who is 60.

He beamed, and called Ryan one of his good friends.

Ryan is the executive director of Community Housing of Maine, a nonprofit that owns 68 housing sites for low-income and special needs people in the state. The nonprofit builds the housing, which ranges from multistory developments to small, four-unit homes. Ryan then solicits the chronically homeless to become his tenants. Other organizations provide services, like mental health and substance abuse treatment, to keep them in their apartments.

“We’re working in partnership to make sure that the person is successful out there in the community,” Ryan said.

In 2014, at least 22 long-term residents of Portland’s year-round shelter found homes through Community Housing of Maine.

The organization has help from what’s called the Housing Opportunities for Maine, or HOME, Fund. Since the 1980s, half of the revenue from Maine’s real estate transfer tax has gone into the fund. In 2012, the fund added $5.1 million. Those dollars are then spent on affordable housing projects, including those developed by Community Housing of Maine.

No equivalent fund exists in New Hampshire, and establishing a Housing First model in Concord would be expensive. When Community Housing of Maine built a 30-unit building that now houses 10 formerly homeless people, the project cost $5.6 million. Most of the money came through the federal low-income housing tax credit program and private investment. Ryan reported the average cost for his organization to house a long-term homeless person is $7,287 per year.

But the cost of housing is far less than the cost of keeping these individuals on the street, Ryan said. A 2009 study tracked formerly homeless tenants as they entered supportive housing in Portland. By their second year in stable living situations, their emergency room costs were down 49 percent. Their costs for ambulance transportation dropped 53 percent; the cost of their police interactions decreased by 51 percent. For that new 30-unit building, preliminary data shows those savings total about $7,044 per year, per person.

“It’s probably the most expensive intervention, but it has the most bang for the buck,” Ryan said.

Housing First has other challenges. In the lobby of a new 30-unit building across from Hall’s apartment, an angry elderly woman stopped Ryan. She asked him whether he had heard about the feces in the laundry room, or the squatters staying with other guests, or the high number of police visits.

“I didn’t know I was going to live in a halfway house,” she told him.

Years sleeping in shelters or outside can alienate a new tenant from the standards most landlords and neighbors expect. Case managers could help formerly homeless people navigate the rules of a new apartment. But they could also work closely with the tenant to set and achieve personal goals, as well as act as middlemen with service providers and employers.

That support is crucial to keeping a tenant in his or her apartment, Ryan said.

“Without that, it doesn’t work,” he said.

‘A coordinated effort’

When J. St. Hilaire moved into her first apartment in more than two decades, she slept with her knapsack fully packed at the end of her bed for two years.

“The next year, my knapsack was beside the door,” said St. Hilaire, now 65. “I wasn’t carrying it around with me anymore. You know, it took me three years to get to the point where I could finally unload my knapsack.”

St. Hilaire spent years couch surfing or occasionally crashing at her family’s farm in Weare, sleeping in her car or pitching a tent outside. She stayed at the McKenna House shelter in Concord for two years and three months, she said, but she continued to use alcohol and over-the-counter medications. Plagued by ADD and haunted by discrimination she has experienced as a transgender person, St. Hilaire felt wary of the Concord apartment that Families in Transition offered her in 2004. Paranoid about hidden cameras, she turned the lights off when she used the bathroom.

Ten years later, St. Hilaire calls that apartment her home.

“It doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes an effort,” St. Hilaire said. “A coordinated effort of people that just want to help you.”

That coordinated effort came from Families in Transition, which works with homeless individuals and families. Along with a place to live, the nonprofit got St. Hilaire into counseling. She then got medical care for her diabetes, along with a day planner to keep track of her appointments. It took five or six years, but she finally got sober. Now, she’s on the board of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness.

Families in Transition could also be the first Concord-area agency to implement Housing First. The nonprofit already oversees transitional and permanent housing for formerly homeless individuals, like St. Hilaire. Earlier this month, the nonprofit was awarded about $156,000 in a federal grant to establish one year of a Housing First program in New Hampshire. The money would cover housing for 12 chronically homeless people and a salary for one case worker.

But those tenants could be spread anywhere between Concord and the Seacoast, and the dollars aren’t guaranteed. The final awards will be announced in early 2015, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development might not have enough money to go around.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to actually implement the program, but at this point, it’s a little bit uncertain,” said Cathy Kuhn, director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness.

The more local Concord Coalition to End Homelessness is not itself prepared to be a housing provider, but the group is grasping at other means to achieve its namesake goal. It could still happen here. But how?

“That’s what we’re struggling to figure out,” Groh said. “How can we make that happen? What can we piece together to make that happen?”

(Editor’s note: Upon arriving at First Congregational Church to stay in the cold weather shelter this week, Brian Herra has reportedly been reunited with his family.)

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