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.

Move-In Day At The Crossings

Posted on April 3, 2012

This blog was written by VSH’s volunteer resources manager, Alison Jones-Nassar.

For those of us who have never been homeless, I think it’s hard if not impossible to understand the complex mixture of feelings that is experienced by someone who has been homeless on the day their nightmare ends and they move into permanent housing. On Thursday, March 29, it was my privilege to witness one person’s private journey as she turned the key in the lock of her brand new apartment home.

It was a perfect day for a move. The sky was a beautiful cloudless blue, the sun was warm and the breeze was mild. The woman (I’ll call her Sandra) who presented herself at the office of The Crossings at Fourth & Preston, our newest development in Charlottesville, looked about my age. Her face was worn but she seemed almost giddy as she practically skipped behind the property manager to the elevator. She lunged for the button and I laughingly told her she reminded me of my 13-year-old. “I can’t believe I’ll be taking this elevator up and down every day,” she said rubbing her hands in delight. “It’s going to take a while for that to get old.”

On the way to her unit, she stopped to admire every pristine detail, from the light fixtures to the paneling. It was as if she did not want to arrive too quickly, as if she was savoring every exquisite moment of anticipation. Her hands shook as she slipped the key into the lock and, as the door swung open, I suddenly realized I was taking part in a deeply intimate moment, both bitter and sweet in equal measures.

It is not unusual for joy to express itself sometimes as tears, at other times as dancing. This new tenant erupted into both as she tentatively walked into the apartment, clasping her hands and rocking from side to side. The spacious room barely seemed able to contain her overflowing feelings of happiness and relief. Almost immediately, she threw open the window and took in the view below. What was she seeing? What was she remembering?

What does “home” mean to any of us? Comfort? Stability? Family? Peace? Surely for Sandra, just a year younger than me and a mother like myself, it meant all that and so much more. “I have worked all my life. I did everything I was supposed to. How did I end up this way? How did this happen to me?” I did not ask questions, but some details emerged. She had moved around a lot in her life. She had a daughter living up north that she had not seen in several years. She had been evicted from her last apartment and it seemed as though she had been living for a while in her car. She joked about it, calling herself “residentially challenged.” But later she bristled with resentment as she talked about the assumptions people made that she had become homeless because of “poor life choices.” She made a point of distancing herself from downtown “hangouts” and other homeless individuals who frequented those places. “That’s not me.”

We worked all morning, loading her car with boxes and bags that she had been able to store at a local church. It was the familiar things we all accumulate: plastic hangers, a box of kitchen knives, books, stacks of neatly folded clothes, a set of luggage given to her by her grandmother when she was fifteen. As we delivered the last of it to her apartment, Sandra turned to me and said, “I thought I was going to have to do all this by myself today, that I wouldn’t have anyone to share it with. Thank you!”

I can’t say with any confidence why so much terrible misery exists in the world. Do all things really happen for a reason? Does everything truly happen “exactly the way it’s supposed to”, as we who are so blessed like to insist? All I know is that, if we can heal even a fraction of that misery by responding with kindness and compassion when the opportunity comes our way, then maybe there is redemption in that – for the ones who suffer and for us too.

When I drove to Charlottesville that morning, I had no idea what the day held in store for me. I thought I would be taking a few photos and distributing some donations, but it turned out to be so much better. For that, I am the one who is thankful.

A Race Worth Winning

Posted on March 20, 2012

This blog was written by VSH’s volunteer resources manager, Alison Jones-Nassar.

This past weekend, I was reminded again of how breathtakingly beautiful our nation’s capital is. I was in Washington on Friday and Saturday (along with 40,000 other runners) to participate in an annual half-marathon event, and the city was awash in the colors and smells of spring.

Between the beautiful monuments, historic stone buildings, meticulously-tended outdoor spaces, upscale shops, and affluent residences, no one can deny that Washington is indeed a lovely city. At least on the surface. In stark contrast to its majestic exterior, however, is a dark underside of homelessness. In fact, according to the NAEH’s State of Homelessness in America report released in January 2012, the rate of homelessness for Metro Washington exceeds the national rate (24 homeless individuals per 10,000 in D.C. compared to a national rate of 21 homeless individuals per 10,000) and is almost three times the rate in Richmond (9 homeless individuals per 10,000).  Moreover, while the homeless population decreased nationally, it increased in the District of Columbia.

In past years, it was not at all uncommon to see homeless people sleeping on benches and huddled on sidewalks along various points of the race course, especially in some of the downtown areas and working-class neighborhoods east of the Capitol. It has always caused me some measure of discomfort to run past them as if they were just another feature of the scenery, and frankly, I did not look forward to seeing this again over the weekend.

But this year, strangely, I did not see a single homeless person. Although I hoped for an optimistic explanation (“Breaking News: D.C. Solves Homelessness!”), I suspected a less cheerful reality. No doubt the race organizers considered the negative PR of exposing 40,000 out-of-town visitors to the “unsightliness” of homelessness and “sanitized” the area accordingly with a beefed-up police presence. One problematic consequence of the Occupy Movement has been that more and more urban areas choose to “deal with” their homeless problems by sweeping homeless individuals out of sight and passing laws that criminalize their visibility. It seems that the easy short-term quick-fix options are almost always selected over the harder long-term solutions, even though “easy” comes at a heavy price – both financially and in human costs.

So I had to conclude that the race organizers had consciously and callously prioritized my need to run guilt-free through a sterilized landscape…at the expense of the hundreds of individuals for whom homelessness is an ongoing nightmare. I felt a little discouraged about all this as I headed back down 95. Now more than ever, research is telling us that we know how to end homelessness, especially the most persistent form: chronic homelessness. Consider this excerpt from page 13 of the above-mentioned 2012 State of Homelessness Report:

Another notable decrease was the 3 percent decline in chronic homelessness. This decrease is consistent with a trend that began in 2007….A primary reason for the downward trend in chronic homelessness is the increasing use of permanent supportive housing, an intervention shown to be effective and cost effective in ending chronic homelessness.

But then I stopped to get coffee in Garrisonville and a Washington Post headline caught my eye: “Home At Last, For Good: District Opens New Permanent Housing Complex for Women on the Streets At Least a Year.”  For us at Virginia Supportive Housing, the article chronicles a familiar story – and a hopeful one.

Speaking about D.C.’s growing dynamic of chronic homelessness, Human Services administrator Fred Swan says, “We wanted something more sustainable….The long-stayers just kept coming back, and it was a cycle that needed to be broken.” The article continues: “With that in mind, officials implemented a ‘housing first’ model, focused on offering long-term sustainable housing first and then treating health or social issues – a concept that has been used nationwide.” The article concludes with a quote from one of the featured tenants, Gail Faulkner: “You see these,” she said, dangling the silver apartment keys next to her face. “Nobody can take them away.”

So while no American city – Richmond and Washington D.C. included – has succeeded in solving homelessness (yet), there is good news on the horizon, and that good news, for Gail Faulkner and so many of the people served by VSH, is permanent supportive housing. Study after study concludes that increased availability of and access to permanent supportive housing will be absolutely critical to our efforts to reduce and end homelessness once and for all.

I don’t know how many years I will continue running the D.C. half-marathon, but I like to think that one day in the not-too-distant future, the absence of homeless individuals will not be because we chased them into the shadows….it will be because there aren’t any. By taking slow deliberate steps in the right direction, we can win this race.

Hopeful, Optimistic….But Also Impatient

Posted on February 15, 2012

Three nights ago, the temperature plunged down into the teens and the wind chill factor was even colder than that. Most of us passed the night in the warmth of our heated homes. But according to Homeward’s most recent Point in Time Count, almost 1000 people in our very own community did not have a home in which to sleep that night and more than 100 were forced to sleep outside in public parks, on fire escapes, and in encampments by the river.

Statewide, more than 9,000 Virginians experienced homelessness that night according to estimates by Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development.  Can you imagine sleeping outdoors in that kind of cold? The truly sad part is that we know how to fix homelessness and a solution is within our reach. It’s called permanent supportive housing.

“Permanent supportive housing works,” states John Dearie, board member with the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, in his recent RTD op/ed piece. “Eighty-five to 100 percent of the tenants in…Virginia’s PSH programs have not returned to homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently identified the emergence of PSH programs as the single most important factor in reducing chronic homelessness in America in recent years.”

Even more important, according to Dearie, is the fact that the permanent supportive housing model delivers dramatic savings to the community. “A 2010 analysis of Virginia Supportive Housing’s A Place to Start initiative showed that the program had dramatically reduced this hopeless and costly cycle [of chronic homelessness], saving the local community $320,000.”

This is really good news because it means that political consensus is possible. At a time when politicians can’t even agree on the color of the sky, Democrats and Republicans are joining forces to support legislation that paves the way for policy amendments, funding, and eventually, new PSH developments.

Dearie goes on to say, “Much more work remains to be done. According to VCEH, another 7,000 PSH units are needed to end homelessness in Virginia. That’s a daunting number, but it can be achieved. And Virginia has already made impressive progress.”

At Virginia Supportive Housing, we are hopeful and optimistic…but we are also impatient.

Hopeful because we know that permanent supportive housing is what solves homelessness and we work toward that solution each and every day.

Optimistic because advocacy for this evidence-based model is slowly but surely growing, both across the state and across the nation.

Impatient because, for the people who are sleeping outside in frigid weather, that solution can’t happen soon enough.

To read John Dearie’s complete op/ed piece, click here.

To read what the National Alliance to End Homelessness has to say about permanent supportive housing, click here.

To find out more about the work of Virginia Supportive Housing, click here.
To support VSH, click here.

For One Volunteer, Homelessness Hits Close To Home!

Posted on October 5, 2011

Last Friday, Capital One hosted a picnic for VSH clients and staff, and thirty-seven Cap One associates supported this great event. One volunteer, Tracy, shared this story about her personal experience with homelessness:

“My father had been searching for his father, my grandfather Jack, for over 40 years.  A few years ago, we found out that he was homeless and had been living on the streets of San Diego for 30+ years.  

“We found out that, in 1949, he received a dishonorable discharge from the military. We also found out that he had been involved in some criminal activity after his discharge. All of this alienated him from his family and eventually led to his homelessness. After searching for so many years, my father didn’t care so much about any of that. He just really wanted to get him off the streets.  Even though we didn’t know him very well, we still had our own special bond with him and really wanted to help him! 

“Despite everything we were able to find out about Jack’s situation, it proved extremely difficult to locate him. We were able to establish that he was consistently using a certain shelter in downtown San Diego, and we called several times and spoke to a priest who said he would give him our information.  We were also able to contact his case manager and she has been wonderful trying to piece things together for us. 

“My grandfather knew that we were looking for him, but no matter what we did we couldn’t get through to him. At one point, my dad even drove out to California to see if he could make contact, but he didn’t succeed. The case manager told us that my grandfather was sick and needed medication but wasn’t willing to take the help that was being offered to him. He was becoming sicker and sicker but continually refused to be hospitalized.

“On the evening of March 16, I was at home doing some additional searches and I found out that Jack had passed away on 2/19/2011. He passed away in the hospital after being found near death on the street by a Good Samaritan. Unfortunately he was alone!   

“As a family we were very disappointed that we were not able to reconnect with my grandfather before he passed, and very sad that he died without family. As I have gone through this whole search process, I have come to realize that there are an amazing number of people on the streets who are in a similar situation. My prayer is that homeless people will get the assistance they need before it’s too late. At the picnic, I was reminded again that what Virginia Supportive Housing does is so important. No one deserves to spend their last days like my grandfather, sick, alone, and homeless.”

Unfortunately, Tracy is right. There are more than 100,000 chronically homeless individuals sleeping on the streets of America on any given night. Their ages, backgrounds, and experiences may differ, but one thing unites them all. Their medical vulnerability and chronic homelessness makes them three to four times more likely to die prematurely in circumstances we wouldn’t wish upon anyone. 

Like Tracy, we at Virginia Supportive Housing strongly believe that no one deserves to live on the streets, struggling with illness and cut off from loved ones. That’s why we work hard every single day to provide permanent housing and support services for these individuals, so that their health needs can be addressed, their lives can be repaired, and their hope can be restored.

For Tracy’s grandfather, Jack, it’s too late. But for so many others, we CAN make a difference.

To help VSH win the Amazing Raise Challenge, click here!

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