Why Ending Homelessness Isn’t That Easy

Housing is only part of the equation in Arlington.

A-SPAN’s Scott Miller with a stockpile of donated clothes. Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley

Julie (not her real name) also can’t get enough hours to get ahead in life.

Now approaching her 30th birthday, she earns $12.67 per hour taking orders and making salads at a lunch spot in Clarendon. The work suits her outgoing personality, but she gets only 20 to 25 hours a week, making it tough to support her children, a 9-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl.

After graduating from Wakefield High School, Julie says undiagnosed mental health issues and bad choices threw roadblocks in her way. Feeling pressured in an abusive relationship, she stole. She was convicted of grand larceny and spent three months in the Arlington County jail.

Saddled with a criminal record, and anger and depression as byproducts of her mental health issues, she cycled through temporary jobs while living in her grandmother’s two-bedroom house—six people sharing one bathroom. She slept on the couch, her children on an air mattress, their stuff crammed into tote bags in a corner.

“One day I just got fed up with the arguing and fussing. I put my pride aside and went to see if [we] could get into a shelter,” Julie says. “That’s when my whole life got better.” She turned to Sullivan House in March 2015, got counseling and the medication she needed, and the feeling of struggling through every day lifted.

Sullivan House is one of five shelters in Arlington County. In addition to emergency shelter, the Clarendon facility offers services such as career counseling, financial literacy, tutoring for kids and connections to mental health resources.

The brick, county-owned building is no old-style barracks for the homeless. Each of the 10 families staying there at one time (for up to three months) has its own apartment, bathroom and kitchen. But the conditions aren’t cushy. The small bedbug traps under each bed leg speak to a steady rotation of families whose lives have hit rock bottom.

Still, in one unit being prepared for the next family, donated appliances fill the kitchen. A shared pantry offers toilet paper, soups and other basics to supplement the food stamps so many rely on.

Now that they’ve moved out of Sullivan House, Celestine’s family gets rent subsidies from Bridges’ rapid rehousing program to keep them from falling back into homelessness.

So does Julie’s family. Her entire gross earnings wouldn’t cover her $1,387 monthly lease payment, much less living expenses, so the permanent supportive housing program pays most of the rent. Her share is $250.

Social service experts say those subsidies aren’t just a handout. Studies suggest that finding permanent housing for the homeless ultimately saves money on jail stays, hospital visits, court hearings and shelter beds.

In a 2012 interview, then-HUD secretary Shaun Donovan estimated that the average homeless person on the street costs taxpayers $40,000 per year, whereas housing the same person costs about half that amount.

“It’s absolutely the right thing to do for the individual, who is a person, a human being,” says Scott Miller, senior director of development at A-SPAN (formerly the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network), which runs the county’s Homeless Services Center in Courthouse, a facility that provides 55 beds, as well as meals, showers and other services. “But it’s also a smart thing financially for a community.”

When Arlington County’s “10 Year Plan to End Homelessness” started, officials embarked on a new and holistic means of coordinating care for those in need. The county’s Department of Human Services (DHS), the five shelters and various nonprofits now work together to reduce red tape.

Sam Kelly, executive director of Bridges to Independence, says it’s been a huge improvement: “Can you imagine not having a place to sleep and coming to a provider and having to answer [the same] questions over and over and over?”

DHS is now the first stop. It checks that the person has a connection to Arlington, then figures out which social service agency is the best fit for assistance. Bridges, for instance, serves mostly families and some individual females. Doorways has a shelter for families and a safe house for domestic abuse victims. The Homeless Services Center, run by A-SPAN, and the Residential Program Center (RPC), run by Volunteers of America-Chesapeake, both focus on individuals.

“Whatever the reason someone is experiencing homelessness, we can get them connected to a service provider with deep experience in that area,”says Arlington County Board vice chair Katie Cristol.

A linchpin of this coordinated effort is a policy called “Housing First.” Instead of asking people to get sober, find a job or take other measures to fix their lives before they are offered shelter, the priorities are reversed.

“The end game is housing, housing, housing. It’s about getting people off the streets,” Miller says. Once A-SPAN places them in apartments, case managers follow up to help them access services. The Housing First approach is working, he says. About 96 percent of clients placed in permanent housing are still there after five years.

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