New program puts home before job for the homeless

A client of Your Way Home in an apartment found by the agency. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

Home first. Job second.

That's how Your Way Home flips the script for reducing suburban homelessness.

An increasing number of counties across the country - including Chester and Montgomery - are adopting this "housing first" model. Organizers of successful programs have found that formerly homeless people are more confident seeking employment when they have their own homes where they can eat, shower, relax, and sleep in peace.

"Getting in units is the easy part," said Dave Garber, an employee of Keystone Opportunity Center and a housing locator for Your Way Home Montgomery County.

But "you can't just give them the keys," said Jason Alexander, a strategy consultant for area nonprofits.

They have to learn how to stay there.

So, once the people are housed with the help of Your Way Home's private and public funds, "stability" coaches get to work, helping them learn to live on their own.

"Mama," as the 56-year-old woman was known in the shelter, can finally take a bath, now one of her favorite things. Once the go-to person for others when she lived in a Montgomery County shelter, Mama always helped other homeless people. But she had no place to take care of herself.

She suffers from breathing problems and nerve damage, and has undergone several surgeries. She asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

Mama broke down when she saw her new home for the first time last month. Now, she can focus on finding a job.

Looking around the living room of her suburban apartment, Mama said, "You can't do anything without a home."

Your Way Home has helped 274 people in Montgomery County move into their own apartments since it started in January.

Before Your Way Home, the county's homeless relied on the Housing Authority's voucher program, said Joel Johnson, executive director of the county agency.

Each year, 2,500 people in the county are given vouchers to secure housing, but it's usually the same people every year.

"Over the last few months, there may have been a few new people," Johnson said.

But cuts to federal funding leave Johnson and his associates unable to help everyone in need.

"We don't have nearly the funds we would like," Johnson said.

Johnson called Your Way Home "a tremendous initiative" that he believes will have long-lasting effects.

Garber conceded it was too early to gauge the overall success of Your Way Home. But he is hopeful.


Success stories

Community Solutions, a national nonprofit in New York City, boasts more than 100,000 shelter-to-home success stories across the United States in the last four years.

In Chester County, another fledgling program called Decade to Doorways uses a call center to assess the homeless and help them find temporary or permanent housing.

Sometimes they will house people before they are employed, and case managers follow up after they are housed.

But often the "need is greater than the resources," said Pat Bokovitz, director of the Chester County Department of Community Development.

Delaware and Bucks Counties also have homeless services and emergency shelters.

Though Delaware County officials could not be reached for comment, their website said the county's rapid rehousing program was no longer operating because the funding had run dry.

At Your Way Home, Garber mediates between new residents and their landlords. Once housed, "stability" staff helps the new residents look for work and seek therapy if needed.

Stephanie Flamer, another Keystone employee, serves as Mama's housing stability coach.

On a weekday in June, Garber and Flamer hauled bags of groceries into the woman's kitchen. In the back bedroom, Garber tried to reconstruct the woman's broken desk. It sat beside her neatly made bed, topped with throw pillows that have kitschy sayings about friendship etched into the fabric.

Before she found Your Way Home, Mama said, "I never really had people looking out for my best interest."

In 2009, Mama's husband died after years in a nursing home. With her mother deceased and her father living out of state, she was on her own.

Then she lost her job. Mama had been steadily employed for 30 years, working various jobs, including a recent stint as a security officer.

"It was the worst nightmare for me," Mama said.


'Needed a push'

Homelessness is not confined to urban street corners. In the suburbs, the homeless population is often less noticeable. Many live in shelters, in the woods, or out of their cars.

Mama lived in her car for two days after she was evicted from her home. After selling her car did not raise enough cash to allow her to get her apartment back, she moved to a shelter, where she lived for nine months.

Garber recalled other homeless people - a father and son - who lived out of the son's truck.

The son poured the little cash he had into treatment for his father's poor health. When they gathered enough extra money each month, the two rented a hotel room to shower.

Both had bad credit, and the son had past run-ins with the law. Without Garber's help, the pair would have had a difficult time renting from a landlord. They also could not pay a security deposit, usually two months' rent up front.

After they called Your Way Home, Garber found them an affordable apartment. With careful budgeting, the two were fully self-sufficient in 90 days.

They had plenty of assets to stay in a home, Garber said, adding they "just needed a push."

"We tell the tenant, 'This isn't a free-for-all,' " Garber said. "You have to be a good tenant."

In the suburbs, Garber said, he sees few people who are chronically homeless. Instead, they experience temporary homelessness caused by job loss or disability.

Garber estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of his clients have families. When he prioritizes, families top the list.

"Families, of course, want to stay together," said Alexander, the strategy consultant. "And moving from homelessness disrupts students' ability to learn."

Public transportation - which most suburbs lack - also is an important factor when finding people apartments. Few homeless have cars, Garber said, which makes finding and keeping employment difficult.

So Your Way Home works with people to develop a plan for eventual self-sufficiency. Garber places them in realistic units, "not Cadillacs."

And Your Way Home will support folks as long as they pursue the goals of their individualized action plans, a joint effort by them and their stability coaches.

"We don't want to enable them to use the system," Garber said. "Our goal is to make sure the client isn't back."