Housing Mr. X

Posted on July 17, 2012

Chances are you’ve seen him. For more than two years, Mr. X has been a fixture at a major downtown underpass, gesticulating wildly to himself, vaguely menacing, unapproachable. Every city has its own Mr. X. The individual considered most likely to decline outreach, most resistant to housing and services, the Mt. Kilimanjaro of the homeless services providers system. In New York, you find these individuals in The Bowery. In Los Angeles, they reside at Skid Row. In New Orleans, it was the legendary Mr. Coleman. In Richmond, agreement was unanimous that it was Mr. X.

When the announcement was first made back in April of 2011 that the state of Virginia intended to join the national 100,000 Homes Campaign and that Richmond, led by Homeward and Virginia Supportive Housing, would be the vanguard city, VSH received multiple e-mails from concerned citizens wondering if Mr. X would be outreached. At the time, it was not at all clear that he would – or could – be helped.

Mr. X wasn’t always this way. With several years of college on his resume, he was clearly intelligent and had the potential to be as functional and productive as you or me. However, as we all know, sometimes it only takes one tough episode to send a life careening off the tracks. Mr. X’s descent into mental illness and subsequent homelessness was apparently rapid, but not beyond treatment, if only someone cared enough.

The VSH support services staff became officially acquainted with Mr. X last August during Richmond Registry Week. Multiple survey teams approached him that week, but he declined to cooperate each and every time. And yet, he clearly met the survey criteria of chronically homeless and medically vulnerable, especially on the basis of mental health concerns. In fact, on one occasion, VSH’s HomeLink Team Leader Lynn Aumack offered to bring him coffee and he refused, suspecting that it would be poisoned and threatening to “cut off the head of the Dalai Lama” if “the people in the red shirts” didn’t stop coming around.

Despite his erratic behavior, VSH staff continued to try to connect with him over the next several months.  Mr. X’s symptoms were so severe that it was extremely difficult to build rapport, and he declined all offers of housing and services repeatedly.  On at least two occasions the Richmond Police Department’s HOPE team and RBHA (Richmond Behavioral Health Authority) Crisis team were called in for an assessment, but both times the conclusion was that he did not meet the necessary criteria for involuntary hospitalization.

Lynn didn’t give up, though, and saw an opportunity at the beginning of June that resulted in another Crisis team assessment. This time, the outcome was that Mr. X was admitted for inpatient psychiatric treatment. With medication, Mr. X’s symptoms improved rapidly and he was able to engage with an APTS (A Place To Start) team member with the result that he agreed to move into permanent housing! On very short notice and in the hospital, the APTS team was able to rapidly process his intake into that program and finalize his housing placement.

Less than a week later, Mr. X moved into his apartment where APTS staff continued to provide him with intensive services. Recently, Mr. X appeared clean-shaven and neatly dressed in the offices of VSH headquarters, working with case managers to sort out his benefits. And, best news of all, Mr. X has been reunited with relatives and will soon return to his hometown to recover with the support of his family. And it all started with housing.

As VSH clinical services director Kristen Yavorsky remarked, all it took was someone driven by the conviction that he deserved better than a life under the bridge.

1,000 Homes Richmond Campaign Houses First Vulnerable Individual!

Posted on September 6, 2011

A 60-year-old veteran now has a home as a result of the 1,000 Homes for 1,000 Virginians – Richmond Campaign!

Bruce Henshaw, who has been homeless and living on the streets of Richmond for three years, moved into a VSH apartment on Thursday 8/25. He is the first person to receive housing as a result of the Richmond campaign.

Henshaw, who has lived in Richmond since the 1960’s, became homeless when he lost his job at a car lot that closed down in 2007. He had difficulty finding a new job because of health problems, and he eventually lost his home. He slept in his trailer for a few months, but had to sell it and began living on the street. “It’s hard to get back up once you start going downhill.”

The 1,000 Homes for 1,000 Virginians campaign is a statewide initiative, led by the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, to identify and house vulnerable homeless individuals who are at increased risk of death without intervention.

Henshaw was identified as vulnerable, due to his age and health status, during the Richmond campaign’s Registry Week, held August 1 – 3. Eleven teams comprising more than 100 community partners and volunteers canvassed the streets of the city to compile a detailed registry of the homeless, including medical and other information. VSH, Homeward, and other community partners are using this data to identify the most vulnerable members of the region’s homeless population and to prioritize them for permanent housing.

Two hundred and eighteen homeless individuals in the Greater Richmond region were surveyed and 118 of that number, or 54.1%, are considered vulnerable. Thirty-one of those identified as vulnerable are veterans.

Henshaw said it is hard being homeless and that his new apartment “will change a lot” in his life. “It will make me feel better about myself and I don’t have to worry about night time…I don’t have to worry about getting mugged, beaten up, or killed.”

VSH is committed to housing 45 vulnerable individuals identified through the campaign. The residents will pay a portion of their income as rent, and they will have a variety of supportive services available to them in their new homes. Volunteers and supporters are needed to assist with move-ins and other activities. To find out how you can support VSH’s proven permanent solution to homelessness, click here.

A Volunteer Reflects On Richmond Registry Week

Posted on August 16, 2011

This blog was written by VSH’s summer PR intern, James Denison

At one point during Richmond Registry Week, I was walking down Chamberlayne Road with a flashlight and a clipboard at the ungodly hour of 4:30 in the morning. Actually, that phrase “ungodly hour” seems ironic to me. It’s as if nothing good happens at that time, as if the only people out and about then are drug dealers, or gang members, or witches. But my team and I were out trying to locate homeless individuals before the sun rose, because they tend to be on the move early too.

We were out as part of the 1000 Homes for 1000 Virginians campaign, seeking to identify the most vulnerable homeless folks in Richmond, and looking for individuals sleeping on the ground or under bridges was a pretty good place to start. So the first thing I learned this week was how early homeless people have to get up. By 6:30 at the latest, they are generally awake and starting their days.

You’d think that folks would be grumpy or hostile about being woken up by a pack of strangers shining lights and asking questions, right? Well, a couple of people did want to go back to sleep. But for the most part, the individuals we met were perfectly willing to complete the vulnerability surveys, which took about 15 minutes. And to thank them for their cooperation, we made sure they knew where their next meal was coming from by giving out McDonald’s gift cards.

All in all, we surveyed more than 150 folks in three mornings, and about half of them fit the criteria for vulnerability, which was based on a combination of age, repeated homelessness, and chronic physical and mental health problems. Personally, I got to interview one man (I’ll call him Jerry) who was living under a bridge and had previously been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. This means that at one time, he must have done something destructive enough to be classified as an imminent danger to himself or to others.

Previously, I wrote a blog about how overcrowded conditions in mental health facilities had led to hundreds of patients being turned away, which led to many of them becoming homeless. At the time, I thought I understood the issue; I thought I cared about getting these individuals off the streets. And I did. But as I watched Jerry mumble to himself and tell me about spirits and spells, the weight of his situation and the necessity of getting him into supportive housing was made real for me.

As a society, we simply cannot allow individuals like Jerry to be left out on the streets to fend for themselves. Jerry may be mentally ill and homeless, but his life is not worthless. With Richmond Registry Week and many other efforts, VSH is committed to standing alongside folks like Jerry in their hard times. The dream is that one day, Jerry and people like him will be able to spend their ungodly hours in the security of their own homes.

You can help make that dream a reality. To find out how, click here.

The Face of Homelessness In Our City

Posted on August 10, 2011

Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our Richmond Registry Week staff and volunteers, one hundred ninety-six two hundred eighteen homeless individuals in the Richmond area were located and surveyed last week, more than half (118 or 54%) of whom qualified as medically vulnerable and at increased risk of death.
Who are they? 31 are veterans. 6 are over 70 years of age. 17 suffer from kidney disease. 64 report being the victim of a violent attack since becoming homeless. They have spent an average of 3.2 years on the street, living under bridges and in wooded areas along the river.
Each of them has a name and a face and a story. They are our neighbors and friends, maybe even our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers and even our grandparents. And now that we know who they are, it is up to us to give them the housing & support they need.  
 We accomplished a lot last week, but there is still much to be done. If you want to be a part of the solution to the problem of homelessness in our community, just click here or send an e-mail to [email protected].  

Richmond Registry Week is a Success!

Posted on August 3, 2011

Richmond Registry Week concluded successfully on the morning of August 3! 66 volunteers, 35 staff representing 10 different agencies, 8 police officers, 10 community leaders, and 60 out-of-town observers took to the streets this week in the early morning hours to identify Richmond’s most vulnerable chronically homeless individuals. In three days, more than 130 individuals were interviewed. You can watch an interview with VSH’s executive director Alice Tousignant here, or read more about Registry Week here.

Richmond Registry Week results will be announced at the Landmark Theater on Friday 8/5 at noon. To attend this event and find out what comes next, RSVP to [email protected]. Scroll down to see pictures of volunteers who are helping to end homelessness in Richmond, and don’t forget to check out our Facebook page! To find out more about volunteer opportunities with Virginia Supportive Housing, click here or send an e-mail to [email protected].

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