A Place to Start Saves Lives and Money

Posted on January 26, 2011

This week’s blog was written by VSH’s Executive Director, Alice Tousignant.

Five years ago, we were all scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do with a certain segment of the homeless population who weren’t getting helped.  These were individuals who were chronically homeless with serious mental illness, many of whom also had a co-occurring substance abuse issue.  Truthfully, many of us had gotten to the point of saying that this specific population chose to be homeless— that was our excuse.  The thing is, no one bothered to ask them what they wanted and if they really did want to be homeless.  The bottom line was that the community, including Virginia Supportive Housing, didn’t know how to help them and we had almost given up trying. 

But then two things happened: we starting hearing stories from around the nation about how chronically homeless people were costing the community money—in other words, even though chronically homeless people comprise a relatively small percentage (about 15%) of the overall population of people experiencing homelessness, they were using a disproportionately high amount of the resources in the community.  We also started hearing about some best practice programs that were successfully housing this population, and these programs were gradually spreading around the nation.

One of these programs was Pathways to Housing, a program that began in New York almost 10 years ago.  After hearing about this program, I must admit I was very skeptical. Not only did I not really believe it could work, it also seemed very costly.  Then PBS did a special on a gentleman called “Footie” who they followed as he entered the Pathways program.  One of the things I vividly remember from the Pathways video was that they talked to individuals who had been living on the streets for years and asked them what they wanted most.  And, guess what they said?  They wanted housing.  They didn’t say they wanted to remain homeless.  That video turned my skepticism to amazement and optimism.  I remember thinking, “We can do this here in Richmond.” 

Working with many partners in the community, including Homeward, the Daily Planet, the Community Services Boards of Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico and the Virginia Housing Development Authority, A Place to Start (APTS) became our Pathways to Housing in Greater Richmond.  The program was launched in late 2007 and began taking individuals off the street shortly thereafter.

APTS places individuals with an extensive history of homelessness and a serious mental illness into permanent housing and wraps intensive services around them.  APTS has a dedicated service team of professionals, including a psychiatrist, nurse, social worker, peer counselor, substance abuse counselor and employment specialist who provide services 24/7.  APTS also has a housing specialist who works with landlords to broker leases, get clients into permanent housing, and ensure that program participants and landlords are getting what they need.  

We knew the program worked because it was evidenced based, but we needed to prove it worked here in Richmond.  So, we undertook an evaluation funded through the Greater Richmond Chamber Foundation and conducted by the Central VA Health Planning Agency.  The research looked at hospital and incarceration data on 50 clients enrolled in the program and measured costs and incidents 20 months prior to program entry and 20 months after.  The research is complete and the report was released today.

While we knew the program would work, we didn’t know how well it would work.  APTS has taken 58 people off the streets in three years with a 98% success rate in keeping people stably housed!  Only one person has returned to homelessness. 

And APTS is saving the community precious resources.  The research shows that the program has saved the community over $320,000 in the first 20 months in hospital and incarceration costs alone. This does not even include other costs, such as ambulance costs, judiciary costs, and the costs to the homeless services system.

Has this program made a difference in the community?  Yes!  In addition to cost savings, it is making a big difference in the community. We’re taking people off the streets. Most of the folks in the program were unsheltered prior to entering the program and were counted as such in the community’s twice yearly count of individuals experiencing homelessness.  In July 2008, there were 148 people who were counted as “unsheltered homeless.”  In July 2010, that number had gone down to 119, which is a 19% reduction in two years!  Some of this reduction is due to APTS.

What about peoples’ lives?  Just ask Jerome who has been in the program for over two years.  He had been homeless for eight years, living in alleys, dumpsters, and under cars and bushes in Richmond. He suffered frostbite in both feet.  “I struggled like a dog.”  He said that he would have died if he had lived on the street one more year. 

And, there are many more stories like Jerome’s. Despite all that we have accomplished through VSH and APTS, there is still plenty of work that needs to be done. There are still people living on the streets who need to get into housing and get the help they need, and we can’t do that without the community’s support.  To support A Place To Start and the work of VSH to provide proven permanent solutions to homelessness, click here. Thank you!

VSH Breaks Ground For New Studios At South Richmond!

Posted on December 7, 2010

The morning of Tuesday, December 7 was bitterly cold – perfect weather to celebrate the ground-breaking for a new construction project that, when completed, will get 21 chronically homeless individuals off the streets and into permanent housing! Virginia Supportive Housing was very proud to have The Honorable Dwight Jones, Mayor of the City of Richmond, and many other esteemed guests present at this ground-breaking event, which highlighted the collaborative efforts of the City of Richmond, Henrico County, and Chesterfield County to eliminate homelessness in Central Virginia.

In addition to Mayor Jones, VSH Executive Director Alice Tousignant proudly welcomed a number of other guest speakers including: Jay Stegmaier, Chesterfield County Administrator; Mark Strickler, Director of Henrico County Community Revitalization; Ronnie Legette, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Richmond CPD Field Office Director; Jim Chandler, Director of Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program with the Virginia Housing Development Authority; Willie Fobbs, Associate Director of Affordable Housing Production and Preservation with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development; Graham Driver, Director of New Market Tax Credits & Project Development Advisor with Virginia Community Development Corporation; and Karl Bren, President of Green Visions Consulting and Founding Board Member of Virginia Supportive Housing.

South Richmond Apartments, which opened in 1996, currently provides permanent supportive housing for 39 very low-income formerly homeless individuals, many of whom have disabilities. The addition of 21 new units will bring the total to 6o units. Construction will add 13,856 square feet to the existing apartment complex. Eleven of the 21 units will be disability-accessible. In addition, The Studios at South Richmond will be EarthCraft Virginia-certified for green building and energy efficiency, and will incorporate a photovoltaic solar energy system designed to reduce the building’s energy load by 20%.

To view the photos of this exciting event, just click here!

When the pressure of life is too much to bear, VSH is here to help

Posted on September 28, 2010

Steve Wison Smiling

“If I was ever to win the lottery, I’ll donate millions [to Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH)],” Steven Wilson said with a chuckle as he sat in the basement of the Daily Planet on his lunch break. Wilson has been working as a maintenance worker at the Daily Planet, a health services center for the homeless and underprivileged in Richmond, for two and a half years. But several years ago, Wilson never even thought he would become involved with VSH’s services.

Wilson’s struggle began in 2002 when he was sent to jail for close to six years for selling drugs. Upon his release, Wilson did not realize how dire of a state he was really in. He soon found that all of the money saved from his drug-selling days had been spent by family while he was incarcerated, and he was now in need of a place to stay more than ever.

At first, Wilson stayed with his 9-year-old daughter’s mother in Richmond, but their relationship was not a steady one. When she was upset with Wilson, she would kick him out of the house, leaving him with nowhere to go. Eventually she would take him back in, but this cycle was never-ending and detrimental to them both.

Knowing what he had to do to get his life back on track, Wilson found employment with the Daily Planet. But for three to four months during this time, Wilson was forced to spend the nights in his car or occasionally with his mom or other friends around Richmond.

“It was okay as long as I was at work,” Wilson said, as he recalls looking forward to the 5:30 a.m. wake up call which meant he could leave his car. “I found myself volunteering to work on weekends,” he continued, aware that more work meant more money and more time he was kept busy.

One day at work, Wilson overheard a conversation between Daily Planet staff discussing a VSH program and thought it sounded like something he could try. His interest was sparked further when a former co-worker encouraged him to apply, saying that he was a perfect candidate. Wilson took this advice, and it has been almost a year now since Wilson has been housed through VSH.

Wilson said VSH helped him in all aspects of life, from creating a list of goals to budgeting, cooking and car maintenance. “My mom still cooks for me, because I don’t know how to cook,” he laughed, but added that he buys all the food that she prepares for him.

Wilson said the biggest difference in his life since homelessness is the stability his home gives him.

“Without this program, I don’t know what I would’ve did,” he said. He has a place to bring his daughter and 19-year-old son currently attending Norfolk State University. There is no one yelling at him if he comes home too late, and he no longer has to worry about the little things. His home is just that – his.

In today’s economy, Wilson mentioned how a lot of people are living check to check, and many are on the brink of homelessness.

“People think [homeless people] put themselves in bad situations,” Wilson said. “Some of them do, but not everyone’s a bad person. Anything can make you homeless. In life, there’s pressure coming from all angles; it’s easy to make a wrong move. Anyone can.”

He said that everyone needs someone to talk to – to help you figure out what move to make next. “Sometimes you just need someone to say ‘everything’s alright,’” he said, and that is just what VSH did.

“Without y’all around, people are doomed,” Wilson said. He said on the streets, people are “forced to do things [they] don’t really want to do,” but with VSH’s support, one can establish a life away from those negative influences.

Aside from the sense of security that comes with having a roof over his head, Wilson knows the importance of financial stability as well. “[I] always save some money,” he said. “It’s hard when bills are shooting at you, but even if it’s just five dollars [from each check.]”

Wilson said he really appreciates the opportunity VSH gave him, and his currents plans are to “stay out of the streets, maintain [his] job and surround [himself] with positive people.”

Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness

Posted on June 29, 2010

Last week, the federal government unveiled its very first strategic plan to confront the problem of homelessness in the US on an unprecedented scale. The new plan, called Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, identifies four key goals: ending chronic homelessness in five years; preventing and ending homelessness among veterans in five years; preventing and ending family homelessness in ten years; and setting a path to ending all types of homelessness.

Strategic collaboration is the key to the successful accomplishment of these goals. Spearheaded by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the federal plan outlines an ambitious interagency collaboration that involves the active participation of nineteen federal housing, health, education, and human services agencies.

According to the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness (VCEH), the federal plan “provides an excellent framework to guide Virginia’s efforts to align strategies and resources to bring us closer to the day when no Virginian will experience homelessness….The critical component to preventing and ending homelessness…is putting in place a system to prevent homelessness before it occurs and end homelessness as quickly as possible.”

Alice Tousignant, CEO of Virginia Supportive Housing, agrees. “While the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness seems a bit short on specifics, I am very encouraged by the overall effort and am particularly pleased with the Plan’s six Core Values which are right on target.  I have made similar statements many times recently.  They are:

“As VCEH emphasized, collaboration is critical…Here in the Greater Richmond area, we have Homeward and in South Hampton Roads, there are similar efforts being coordinated by The Planning Council. If all of us as a community embrace these six core values in our approach to prevent and end homelessness, we indeed can make a real difference.”

Partners In The Fight To End Homelessness

Posted on May 25, 2010

The collaborative efforts of Virginia Supportive Housing and the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness provide a perfect illustration of how agencies that are focused on the same issue can align strategies and complement each other’s strengths to bring about real change.

The mission of the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness is to prevent and end homelessness in the Commonwealth of Virginia through community collaboration, capacity building, education and advocacy. Although it is not a direct service provider, its work in the areas of statewide research, data collection, policy development, and resource mobilization is critical to the work of Virginia Supportive Housing.

Virginia Supportive Housing’s mission is to provide permanent solutions to homelessness using an integrated approach that combines permanent housing and support services. As a direct service provider, VSH has a “ground-level” perspective of the problem of homelessness which might seem at odds with VCEH’s more abstract perspective. However, neither agency could achieve its mission in the community without the other, and together the two agencies have helped to transform the state’s response to homelessness in many ways.

One of VCEH’s top priorities for 2010 is to increase investment in permanent supportive housing for homeless people with disabilities, ex-offenders, and veterans by conducting a needs assessment and developing an action plan. This priority reflects not just a regional trend (as articulated in Richmond’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness), but also a nationwide shift in focus toward the integrated model utilized with such success by VSH.

By quantifying VSH’s successes in the form of measurable data, VCEH can make pragmatic recommendations borne out by practice. And by implementing evidence-based practices supported by research, VSH can strengthen the case for permanent supportive housing. In this way, the priorities of both agencies can be met in a way that is both mutually beneficial and deeply validating.

For more than two decades, VSH and VCEH have been joining forces in the regional fight to permanently end homelessness. It is collaborations like these that will ultimately put an end to a problem that has plagued our communities for far too long. VSH and VCEH agree – the time to end homelessness is now.

VCEH can’t achieve its mission without you. To support the effort to end homelessness in the Commonwealth of Virginia, become a VCEH member today!

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