Robert Carrington found it easier to live on the streets for three years than to find a place to live on his own.
On the street, he had friends to drink with and he could find food. In shelters, he struggled to stay sober and keep menial jobs because he was almost always dirty, sick and tired from his days on the street. He couldn’t save money for a place of his own.
“You start losing hope, then you fall down with the drinking more,” he said.
Homeless advocates are trying to end this shelter-to-street cycle to slow the growth of one of Montgomery County’s fastest-growing populations: the chronically homeless. They are defined as those who have been living on the street for more than a year, have a disability, and spent the previous three years either entirely homeless, or in and out of it.
The focus of the county’s response to homelessness is shifting, said Kim Ball, the administrator of homeless services for the Department of Health and Human Services. Efforts will no longer only focus on providing temporary and transitional housing — usually hotel stays that last up to a few months or emergency shelters. The “housing first” model centers on creating permanent supportive housing for those in need with on-site services.
The newest addition to the county’s stock of permanent, supportive housing is Lasko Manor in Bethesda. The $4.3 million, 12-unit studio-apartment complex on the 7900 block of Hampden Lane opened in August, said Susan Yancy, a spokeswoman for the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, a nonprofit housing organization. The manor was paid for by $2 million in state tax credits, $1 million in federal stimulus funds and a $1 million loan from Montgomery County
Lasko Manor, now nearly full, like most similar complexes is run with on-site counselors as well as services for residents in hopes of keeping them employed and safely housed, she said.
County officials say this model is a proven way to combat chronic homelessness and, despite this year’s uptick in homeless residents, is getting people off Montgomery County streets.
Compared to other jurisdictions in the metropolitan area, Montgomery County experienced the largest jump in chronically homeless this year compared to last — from 180 to 344 adults, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional organization of the 20 governments in and around Washington, D.C., which tracks regional homelessness. Some areas, including the District, saw declines in homelessness.
Despite those figures, homeless advocates say they are on track to curb the problem as they change the way they think about getting people like Carrington off the street.
The chronically homeless make up about 27 percent of the 11,988 homeless people in the Washington, D.C.-region, and they use more than half of its homeless resources, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
John Mendez, the outreach social worker for Bethesda Cares Inc., a nonprofit that supports working poor and homeless in Montgomery County, said the chronically homeless are the hardest to help, because many have drug problems, mental or physical disabilities, and health issues. Montgomery County doesn’t focus enough on actively finding and housing the most severely homeless, Mendez said, likely because they are also the last to ask for help. Traditional methods of assistance, where permanent, subsidized housing comes only after they enter rehabilitation or work programs, has proven to be ineffective.
“They’re the hardest ones to help, but they’re also the ones who at the center of the problem,” Mendez said. “These are people who we need to get off the street first, then everything else will fall into place.”
Michael Knapp, a former county councilman representing the upcounty, said when he and Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park proposed the housing first model in 2008, he knew it would first help those most capable of being helped, not the most severly-homeless. As more housing is available, the county will be able to focus on the chronically homeless, Knapp said.
“The hardest are always going to be the hardest, you’re going to help the people on the front-end first,” he said. “When it gets established, then you’ll see it get to [the chronically homeless].”
Leventhal, chair of the county’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the county isn’t writing off the hard cases, saying the opposite is often true: that the most-severly in need are being targeted for care.
He said the success of the county’s housing program is reflected by everyone taken of the street.
“When you place someone in permanent, stable housing, homelessness ends for that person,” he said. “That can be called a success.”
Julie Maltzman, interim executive director for the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, one of the county’s largest nonprofits dedicated to homeless housing, said her group targets the chronically homeless and has 38 permanent apartments and efficiencies for them alone, along with nearly 100 for other homeless individuals.
Maltzman said she doubts homelessness and chronic homelessness are on the rise in Montgomery County. She attributes the increases to more accurate counts.
“Our system for counting is better,” she said. “Three years ago, some of the people counting didn’t even know the real definition of [chronically homeless].”
Mendez points to people like Carrington, who he helped connect with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supporting Housing program, as an example.
Carrington, a former member of the Army National Guard, was given an apartment in Takoma Park in January through the program — one of 25 made available in the county last year. He credits his eight-month employment stocking groceries in Bethesda, his sobriety and his health to having a home.
“It makes a big difference when you can turn that lock at the end of the day, and know you’ve got a place to lay your head,” Carrington said.
Housing the homeless
In two years, the county has expanded its permanent housing stock, Ball said. More than 500 people are housed in the 559 beds in apartments and efficiencies financially supported by Montgomery County, both through direct financial contributions and the administration of state and federal grants. In 2005, there were fewer than 100 such places in the county.
Between 2009 and 2011, homelessness overall, particularly for families, has decreased from 1,194 to 1,132. In 2009 there were 168 homeless families in the county, that number has since dropped to 125.
County officials cut more than $600,000 out of the 2011 budget for Special Needs Housing this year, which includes homeless initiatives as well as housing for the disabled, bringing the total to $17.3 million, according to the county’s website. This was done mainly by cutting nearly $1 million from the program’s Rental & Energy Assistance Program, which aims to help reduce the cost of living for low-income families and renters.
Another new collection of permanent housing is Cordell Place, run by the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless. The $9 million, 32-apartment complex in Bethesda opened in December and was full of tenants by March. Eight of the tenants are designated for chronically homeless.
Anne Donohue is program director of Cordell Place. She said in addition to providing social and rehabilitative services, she tries to treat the residents as any other kind of tenant. They sign yearly leases and give a portion of their income toward rent. All residents must have income, whether that be a job or social security to move them toward the goal of transitioning out of homelessness. The coalition’s housing programs have a nearly 95 percent success rate, meaning that percentage do not go back to living on the street, Maltzman said.
She said while their focus is to house the most in-need, those people often face disabilities that prohibit them from living on their own, such as severe autism or drug addiction.
“It can be a very tough balance to achieve,” she said. “People who are the most vulnerable, who most need supportive housing, they’re the hardest to keep housed.”
But this model for homelessness doesn’t come cheap, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimate that in Montgomery County a housing voucher is worth about $1,200 per month.
Queenie Featherstone is a resident of Cordell House and a special education paraeducator with Montgomery County Public Schools. Stone last worked at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, and said she was kicked out of her apartment in Takoma Park last September when she couldn’t find enough work to pay her rent and ended up on the street. She moved to Cordell house in February from Rainbow House, a women’s shelter in Rockville where she once volunteered.
Staff at Cordell House helped her get a new hearing aid, which she said she lost shortly after becoming homeless.
“I’m just trying to work and get myself back out on my own,” she said. “That’s what I want.”