Why Ending Homelessness Isn’t That Easy

Housing is only part of the equation in Arlington.

David Clark, who formerly lived under that Route 50 bridge, is literally the face of Arlington’s Housing First policy. Inside the Homeless Services Center is a large photo of Clark, proudly dangling his first set of apartment keys in half a lifetime.

Reaching that milestone wasn’t easy. Clark’s former caseworker, Ayana Bellamy (she now runs A-SPAN’s permanent supportive housing program), estimates that he went through alcohol and drug detox or rehabilitation programs 10 to 20 times. “You get done and you gotta go right back out to where you came from,” Clark says, reflecting on his many relapses.

One of those rehab failures brought him to Arlington. He had dropped out of high school and followed his uncle to the streets of D.C., he says, where drinking and crack cocaine occupied his days. After trying rehab at Phoenix House, a substance abuse treatment center in Arlington, Clark had nowhere to go. So he grabbed some cardboard and laid down under the bridge. “I remember crying. I said, ‘God, is this what you got me to be?’ ”

When Clark talks about his years on the street, he never mentions the cold or hunger. Just the shame.

He didn’t want his mother and other family to know he was homeless, but when his sister died, they knew just where to find him. Old friends would drive by his panhandling corner in their work trucks and shout “Dave get your life together.” After an arrest for sleeping in a park, Clark says he was so ashamed of his filthy underwear that he threw it in the trash before going through a pat-down at the county jail.

One day he finally decided to come in from the cold for more than just a quick meal and shower. He moved into the RPC shelter on Columbia Pike for seven months, worked on getting clean and saved money from his disability check (he has diabetes and neuropathy) to pay off court costs from his string of arrests.

After waiting and waiting for a permanent home, he nearly lost hope. He was preparing to return to his spot under the bridge when Bellamy, his caseworker, called with the news that she had finally found him an apartment at Marbella in Rosslyn. “She said, ‘You don’t sound very surprised,’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘because I’m crying.’ ”

Clark moved into his one-bedroom apartment on Feb. 1, 2013. He had quit drugs, but promptly threw a loud party and then allowed other people to move in, violating his lease. Bellamy, alerted by building management, showed up at his door to read him the riot act—an example of how the case management that comes with housing subsidies can be a factor in breaking old habits and ensuring people don’t return to the streets.

One day, feeling faint as he returned home, Clark says he decided to quit drinking too. He’s been sober for several years, though medical issues make it difficult to work and he still relies on disability benefits.

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