At the age of 23, Lisa Spencer* found herself with no place to go, walking the streets of Richmond in search of shelter.
Spencer was experiencing homelessness as a mother of four, with her fifth child on the way. Along with her children, Spencer was caring for her teenage brother and sister as their mother’s passing had left them all on the streets.
“You could say that all the homelessness really came from my mom passing away,” said Spencer, “It was like, see my brother and sister homeless or take them in.”
As many local shelters are unable to keep families with male teenagers intact, Spencer was on a never-ending mission to find a place for her children and her brother to sleep.
“It’s hard trying to knock on somebody’s door and say ‘Can we stay with you tonight’ with 4 kids, let alone a 16 year old,” said Spencer, “That was like the biggest struggle … I would rather sleep outside with my children then to see my brother outside alone.”
After two years of moving from shelter to shelter, Spencer finally got a break. Her older sister allowed her and her five children to come and stay at her home in Florida. Spencer’s two teenage siblings were able to find homes in Richmond and care for themselves.
Spencer seized the opportunity to move to Florida with her sister and rebuild her life. That opportunity turned out to be short-lived. At 26, Lisa Spencer was diagnosed with Stage 2 cervical cancer.
“That just brought me back down to zero. Anything I ever had hoped for … just flashed before me and I thought ‘oh, I’m about to die’,” said Spencer, “My mom and my father both died from cancer, so I was really scared.”
In hopes of receiving treatment at VCU Medical Center, Spencer returned to Richmond with her children. She found temporary housing with a friend and was able to get her children back into the public school system. Spencer heard about Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH) from a guidance counselor at her children’s’ school and contacted VSH immediately.
VSH was able to assist Spencer using the new Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing (HPRP) funds awarded through the stimulus package. HRPR funds paid the family’s security deposit, utility deposits, and helped with a rental subsidy for the first three months. Housing staff evaluated her situation and helped her figure out the best location for her family to live and a landlord who would rent to her despite her recent rental history. Additionally, housing staff worked with the school systems to allow her children to remain in their home school (Henrico County) through the end of the school year.
Spencer completed her final cancer treatment two weeks before Christmas 2009.
Although Spencer and her children have a rough road ahead of them, it has been made easier by the presence of safe, affordable housing. The family will be reevaluated for HPRP eligibility and need every three months, and may receive a subsidy for an additional 15 months. This will give her enough time to heal and secure employment to sustain her housing once the subsidy ends.
“I can’t thank the staff at Virginia Supportive Housing enough,” said Spencer, “… the kids come home from school and they come in the door and say ‘Mom we’re home’.”
*Name was changed to protect program participant’s privacy.
I have asked Katie VanArnam, VSH’s Director of Housing Access Programs, to write this week’s blog. Katie is a licensed clinical social worker with more than 10 years of experience providing direct services and administrative functions in a variety of non-profit and Government agencies. She holds an MSW degree from Virginia Commonwealth University with a dual concentration in Clinical Services and Administration. Katie directs the A Place To Start program along with two other housing programs. Thanks, Alice
I recently had the opportunity to see some friends from high school. It had been many years since I had seen these ladies and we have all gone our different ways in life. One is a school teacher, one a lawyer, one is a successful business woman and then there is me, the social worker.
After a few days of reacquainting ourselves, we started talking about our chosen professions and the challenges we face on a daily basis. I gave a brief synopsis of the job I do and those who receive services from the programs I oversee. My three friends listened intently, and then one asked, “What do you do about the people who just choose to be homeless? Why don’t they get help?” The question was asked in a very “innocent” fashion and my friend was simply trying to get a better understanding of those I serve.
In formulating my response, it occurred to me that no one really chooses to be homeless. In some cases, people make choices that contribute to their housing crisis, often resulting in the loss of their housing. However, I do not believe that these people are really choosing to be homeless.
Encarta Dictionary defines “choosing” as deciding among a range of options or making a deliberate decision. In the majority of cases, people who have fallen into homelessness do not have a range of options. While the causes of homelessness are many, the solutions are numbered. A “choice” may include entering the shelter system, finding new affordable housing or living on the streets.
While the shelter system in Richmond has come a long way, this system is not an ideal option for many experiencing homelessness. The rules, expectations, communal living situation and schedules can be very difficult to manage. This can be especially true for those who are suffering from an active addiction, have a physical disability, have male teenage children and/or are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness. Shelter is not a choice for everyone.
Many believe … ” if they would just get a job, they could afford housing”. In Richmond, the fair market rent (a rent that is considered to be “fair” and average for a unit) for a one bedroom unit is $832. This means that a single individual who is working full time and earning minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) would have to pay about 90 percent of their take-home pay just to cover the cost of rent. Rent does not include any other costs or expenses. According to Homeward, the region’s coordinating body for homeless services, 25.8 percent of the homeless population IS currently working; 50 percent of these employed individuals are working full time.
What happens when “just getting a job” is not a choice? The fairly recent economic downturn has left a considerable amount of the American population unemployed, making the job market even more competitive. Many people who are homeless have been forced into “choosing” to live on the streets, “choosing” to live in cars and “choosing” to sleep in abandoned buildings and on park benches. They have simply “chosen” from the only option they were given.
As I explained this to my friend, I could see the realization in her face. The next time you see someone experiencing homelessness, and you will see them if you choose to look, ask yourself, what choice did they have?
that 43 percent of adults experiencing homelessness suffer from some disability*.
Today, Dan Jones** is proud to call Gosnold Apartments in Norfolk home. Before moving into Gosnold, for 15 years Dan slept outside and relied on soup kitchens for his meals. During this time, Dan did not take care of his health. In fact, he had no relationships for all of those years with any other person – friend, professional, or otherwise – until he met a homeless outreach worker who got to know him slowly and patiently. She helped to identify that Dan has a disability that impacts his interest in forming relationships and seeking out help. Eventually, she convinced him to apply for disability benefits and an apartment at Gosnold.
For many months after he moved in, he was reluctant to talk to other tenants or staff. His apartment contained only what he needed to survive – no personal comforts or means of entertainment. His appearance remained unkempt and haggard with a long beard and worn out clothing.
His new case manager at Gosnold was as patient as the outreach worker in getting to know Dan and offering assistance. He would visit Dan in his apartment regularly just to talk and to be sure that Dan had what he needed. His case manager soon heard from Social Security that the disability checks that Dan had been awarded had not been cashed. Dan had no idea what to do with the checks that were arriving. This crisis became the opportunity that his case manager needed to engage Dan more closely.
Dan allowed Jay to help him set up a bank account, go with him regularly to the grocery store, and to address some other personal needs. In February 2009, Dan was enrolled in VSH’s Mental Health Support Services program to offer intensive skills training to address some of these emerging concerns. Dan’s social skills have begun to improve, and he agreed to go to Park Place Medical Center for a physical examination. Going to a primary care physician lead to the discovery of a health condition for which he now takes daily medications.
Dan recently purchased a reclining chair for his apartment, a few new sets of clothes, and volunteered for a trip to the barber to neaten up his appearance. He has said he feels like a “new man”.
National research shows us that supportive housing works. It keeps people stably housed and helps them become more independent.
Since VSH has been operating supportive housing for 18 years, we can proudly say that over 90% of the folks that we house and serve do not return to homelessness. And some of our housing options have an even higher percentage.
We believe that one of the reasons for this success is our organization’s ongoing efforts to examine ourselves critically—looking for opportunities to improve our services and programs in order to create even stronger results. We know that even though we have nearly two decades of experience, we still have countless opportunities to learn.
Here’s a very concrete example. We opened 60 supportive studio apartments in Norfolk, Gosnold Apartments and fully leased them in March of 2007. Over 80% of the individuals were chronically homeless—extensive history of homelessness and severe disability. We had never had such a high population of people in need. Many people had lived on the streets for years and had all sorts of health, mental health and substance abuse issues. They also were underemployed or not employed at all. And, they were not used to paying rent. We had one case manager to start with and then hired another to provide much needed services.
One year after we fully leased Gosnold, our success rate for keeping people in housing was not up to Virginia Supportive Housing’s high standards. We were forced to legally evict 10 people, and another 10 people left for other reasons. Nobody was happy about this, including our valued community partners.
I asked staff to work with me on a corrective action plan for Gosnold. We took a very hard look at everything we were doing there, and determined that major changes were needed in the way we were handling this new and challenging population. We replaced staff that were underpeforming, had special training for both property management and services on how to work better together and communicated our progress to our community partners on a bi-monthly basis. We established a goal of reducing negative turnover (evictions) by 10% in 2009.
I am happy to report that our negative turnover at Gosnold Apartments in 2009 was zero. That’s right—we did not evict a single person.
The main reason for this great success is that our staff, both property management and services are now better trained and are working very closely together on the joint goal of keeping people in housing. It’s a lesson we’re glad we learned. And one we’ll continue to examine, evaluate and enhance in the years ahead.