Why not start by giving homeless people a place to live? | KUOW News and Information

Why not start by giving homeless people a place to live?

Aug 2, 2016

Rob Gilroy had a wife, kids and a good job as a garbage collector. Then a divorce kicked his butt. 

“I was grieving,” Gilroy said. “Unfortunately, I turned to drugs. And the bottom line when it comes to drugs is you’re going to end up with nothing.”

Years later, Gilroy was homeless. His situation didn’t change until he connected with a shelter that follows a model known as “housing first.”

The housing-first model gets people into housing before they are sober or their mental illness has been stabilized. The idea is that once people get into housing, they’re more receptive to treatment.

The most famous example is the housing for chronic inebriates that opened in 2005 on Eastlake. It was controversial at the time. Now it’s a broadly accepted strategy.

Washington state has built a lot of housing on this model, but not enough to keep up with demand.

For Gilroy, his luck turned when he went to the Blaine Center, a homeless shelter near the Space Needle. They follow a housing first model.

Gilroy’s case manager at the shelter was Juanita Unger. She said the model works, but she often can’t find a place to put someone.

So it was significant when Unger landed Gilroy an apartment in the Interbay neighborhood, a building paid for with Seattle housing levy money.

Juanita Unger is a social worker at the Blaine Center, a homeless shelter run by Compass Housing Alliance. Unger’s goal is to connect people with permanent housing. Not all shelters share that focus.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Still, when Unger told Gilroy about the apartment, he balked. “He was pretty apprehensive,” Unger said.

She told her client, “You need to take the apartment. There are probably a hundred people waiting for your shelter bed.”

People who need help so they can bounce back. She told him: you may not stay in this shelter forever.

“That’s a hard conversation to have with people, and he did not like it either,” Unger recalled. “He was pretty angry at me. You know, there’s kind of a risk. Could this push him over the edge where he doesn’t accept the housing and he goes into a loop of depression or addiction?”

Gilroy took the tiny studio apartment. Six months later, he’s still getting used to it.

Security is tight – not just anyone can drop in and visit him. And then there’s the constant reminders of addiction; when the guy down the hall is coming down from a high, he yells a lot.

Rob Gilroy says he stayed in shelters for five years before anyone tried to connect him with permanent housing. In contrast, the Blaine Center, which takes a housing first approach, had him housed in months.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Gilroy is trying to make it feel like home. He’s really proud of a beautiful white couch where he sleeps.

“I bought this furniture for $50 from some guy, it was a really good deal,” he said. “I used to have a bed, but I’d rather have it like a living room. It’s more comfortable for me.”

He’s using a lot less meth than he used to. He said someday he hopes to kick it altogether and get a job driving a garbage truck again or a Metro bus.

He’s got a case worker from the Downtown Emergency Service Center to help him out. And he’s started on a new leg of his journey now.

“That’s what this building and DESC has kind of helped me do: get my independence back, get my self-worth back,” Gilroy said.

What lies at the end of that journey? Sandra Anderson of Federal Way is an example of a success story.

Long ago, Anderson was living in a boat in her brother’s backyard, hooked on heroin, struggling with mental illness and making money as a prostitute. She ended up at Western State Hospital.

Then she got into low-barrier housing through a nonprofit called Navos. That helped her transition to a life where she can take care of herself.

She’s sober now, and she’s been applying for jobs; no bites yet, but she’s hopeful. It helps, too, that her friends are noticing her success.

“It makes me feel really good,” Anderson said. “I’ve never been a role model before in my life. But I’ve changed a lot.”

On a recent afternoon, Anderson enjoyed a celebratory meal with a couple of social workers. She got to choose the restaurant: Denny’s.

Digging into her meal, she said, “Oh biscuits and gravy are my favorites, every time I go to a restaurant I want biscuits and gravy.” (And also some strawberry pancakes.)

Now she’s graduating from a housing program like the one Gilroy just got into. The apartment lease will be signed over to her name. She’ll be independent.

Many other people discharged from Western State Hospital don’t have a place to go. Anderson said without housing, she probably would have ended up back at Western State.

Sandra Anderson
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Giving people housing before their lives are fully back in order can be “an incredibly successful intervention," according to Laura Mascuch. She runs the Supportive Housing Network of New York.

New York was one of the early adopters of housing first. The state has built more low-barrier apartments per capita than any other state.

New York’s efforts began in the mid-1990s. Since then, the state has cut its population of chronically homeless single adults by half.

In other words, it’s been a long slog. But Mascuch said it’s worth it, in part because it saves taxpayers money.

“Somebody who’s homeless is cycling in and out of shelter, emergency rooms, prisons, state psych beds – and those systems are incredibly expensive,” Mascuch said.

New York has built over 28,000 low barrier apartments for single adults. Washington state has built around 7,000, which is still more than a lot of states.

And as rents continue to rise, it’s possible the number of people pushed into homelessness could outstrip whatever additional housing supply we manage to build.