HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — For years, William "B.J." George bounced from friends to family members searching for a couch to crash on, all the while nursing an addiction to alcohol.
That image of George stands in stark contrast to the 68-year-old man standing in the living room of his own apartment in mid-June. Sober for more than 50 days, George now lives in a one-bedroom spic-and-span apartment at Heistad House — made possible through the Housing First project coordinated by the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless.
A national philosophy introduced locally in late 2006, Housing First works to increase permanent supportive housing and reduce chronic homelessness, defined as an individual who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
"I would always find a place to go for a couple of months," said George, who has maintained his own apartment for the past year and even pays a small rent payment monthly. "But, it means a lot to me to have a place to go, some place to call home."
Heistad House, a six-apartment building, was the first complex in Huntington designated for the chronically homeless population. The units, described as "supportive housing," are fully furnished and complete with bedroom, kitchen and small living area.
The concept of Housing First is that once a homeless individual can satisfy the basic needs of shelter, food and clothing, they can begin to put the other pieces of their lives back together. It is a no-strings-attached gift, with no expectation of sobriety or a job. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"This was a pretty radical philosophy when we first started because it was different from the way people had always dealt with homelessness. Normally, we expect people to get a job and get sober to get help. What they need is a place to live first and foremost," said Corey Ingram, development and public relations manager for the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless. "With this, we give people a place to live first and then place those support services around them."
John Clarke, executive director of the coalition, called it a holistic, team approach. The coalition works with Prestera Center for Mental Health Services, the Huntington Housing Authority, Information and Referral and the Huntington City Mission among others, to reach an individual.
Supportive services offered to Housing First clients help individuals like George maintain his independence, even if he needs occasional help paying bills or intervention because of mental illness or substance abuse problems.
Homeless people often face challenges with drugs, alcohol and mental illness, and those problems do not vanish when they are given housing. The problems, though, might be more manageable with trained professionals around to help, Clarke said.
"This gives a person stability, a place to bring the services in around them," he said. "It doesn't take a village just to raise a child. It also takes a village to treat the ills of a community."
Not only is it a holistic approach, but the numbers are proving it's an approach that works.
In 2005, the number of chronically homeless in Huntington was estimated to be 112. That number fell to 68 in 2007, according to a report from the Homelessness Research Institute of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Numbers from the 2011 Point-In-Time Count conducted by the Cabell-Huntington-Wayne Continuum of Care, showed that the most current number of chronically homeless is reported to be 26 individuals and two chronically homeless families. The Housing First program offers more than 60 units in Huntington, with a goal of 70 by the end of the year, Clarke said.
The number of chronically homeless isn't the only number decreasing — the amount of money that is required to support the chronically homeless is going down as well.
Chronically homeless people make up only 10 percent of the homeless population, Ingram said, but use more than 50 percent of the resources by cycling through rehab programs, hospital emergency rooms, shelters and jails.
"When you target the chronically homeless population, you help the whole population. They're not using up the resources of our community," Ingram said. "When we first started this, a lot of people thought it sounded ridiculous. A lot of folks have had skepticism about it, but it makes sense, and the proof is in the pudding.
"I have a bumper sticker in my office that says, 'Housing is health care.' And, it is. It really is," Ingram said.
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.comTags: