A Place to Call Home: Part Two

This is Part Two of a series on Housing First. In Part One, WCSH traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah, to learn more about that city’s acclaimed Housing First programs out there. Preble Street has been running Housing First programs in Portland for more than a decade. What kind of commitment from Maine’s leaders will it take to expand those successes statewide? Watch Part One here.

Over the last decade, the state of Utah has made a bold effort to eliminate the problem of chronic homelessness.

That represents people with a disability, mental illness or addiction who have been on the streets for a year or more or have had multiple episodes of homelessness over a three year period.

Utah has created a well-coordinated network of housing and services, and a wide variety of types of permanent supportive housing– for singles, families and seniors.

It has allowed them to meet their goal, set ten years ago, to virtually eliminate chronic homeless — and Veterans homelessness– by December of this year.

Where they used to spend 20-thousand dollars a year per person caring for the chronically homeless, it now costs half that.

The people behind the program say if it can work in Utah, it can work in Maine. And in fact, some of the same steps have already been taken here.

Preble Street in Portland provides a variety of services to the poor, hungry and homeless. Director Mark Swann said about 15 percent of Maine’s homeless are chronically homeless, which is an expensive problem. “They’re using up a lot of resources at the shelters, they’re involved in jail, at detox programs, and police calls, and Medcu calls. And those things cost a lot of money and take a lot of time and resources. But they’re not solutions. They’re just doing the shelter shuffle, moving a person from one shelter to another, to detox, to jail, to shelter, they’re not getting better in that scenario.”

So Preble Street tried “Housing First.” The goal is to put a roof over people’s heads, and then help them get treatment for whatever has kept them on the streets for so long.

When Logan Place opened ten years ago, the impact was evident right away. Swann said “the numbers at our shelter in Portland dropped 10%, and they stayed down for four years. Just from one 30 unit apartment building. That is a significant effect. And that’s in the city, that 10% corresponds to a 5% drop for the state because half the homeless population is here in Portland. You know you can make a huge difference with just a few of these projects.’

Five years later, Florence House opened another example of Permanent Supportive Housing, this one for women only. And now plans are in the works for a new facility on Bishop Street.

Mark Swann said, “it’s 30 units, and our focus for that particular project is not just chronically homeless, but chronically homeless adults who are suffering from significant medical issues and are very fragile medically. And we are lining up support from healthcare providers to join with us in that.”

But as yet there are no operating funds to make the project a reality.

In Utah, where chronic homelessness has been nearly eliminated, the state is a full partner. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (R-Utah) said “I think the state has a couple of roles. There’s obviously the funding piece; there’s lots of different moving pieces when it comes to funding. But more than that, I think the willpower to move forward, we have the opportunity to bring people together to collaborate, to put a stamp of approval, and give it a kick in the rear end I guess for lack of a better term.”

And there is another piece of the puzzle that has played a big part in Utah’s success– the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or The Mormons.

Rick Foster is in charge of LDS Humanitarian Services for North America. He says “as disciples of Jesus Christ, it’s our responsibility. We take that very seriously, to bear one another’s burdens. When things get rough for another individual, we want to step in and do what we can to help stabilize and then to help build a sense of self-reliance, so people can move forward in their lives, and hopefully give back to others in need.”

Welfare programs run by the LDS Church include Bishop’s Storehouses, which are like free supermarkets, with nearly every item stocked manufactured by church operations, from the canned corn to the laundry detergent.

The Church also operates Deseret Industries Thrift Stores.

And the mattresses and furniture in the “Housing First” buildings are made by the church. Many of the people who benefit from this work on the farms, in the cannery, in the wood shops, learning new job skills. Foster said “the work component is critical in all of the welfare work that we do. We believe that an individual should do all that they can for themselves, and not just rely on others or the government or institutions to meet their needs.

Maine does not have one large, far-reaching operation like the LDS Church.

But Mark Swann points out that “we have the Housing Authority support, and the faith community, United Way and lots of private non-profits, but what we’ve been lacking really is the buy- in from the state department of health and human services.”

Maine also has people the business community who want to play a role.

John Coleman is director of the “VIA” ad agency in Portland, and volunteers to help at Logan Place. He has seen how well it works. Coleman said “I want to run a business in a city that cares for everyone in the city. And my associates want to live in a place that takes care of everyone in the city.

The innovation that a housing first model like Logan place has proven is incredible. The economics, it’s just smart business. We will save money and make for a better community if we do more of these housing projects.”

And there are lawmakers, such as Rep. Peter Stuckey (D-Portland), who want to push for more state involvement, if only to make up for past oversights.

“When we started the deinstitutionalization back in the ’70s and ’80s, I think the first thing we didn’t do was understand the importance of having a stable, supportive place to live.”

John Gallagher, director of the Maine State Housing Authority, says replicating the Utah model “would take a pretty big effort, and certainly upper-level leadership to try to pull it together. It’s difficult.”

He says Utah has significant resources from the private sector that Maine doesn’t have.

“The issue for us in Maine is the funding. Maine housing can supply quite a bit of resource toward the actual housing. The issue for us is the services. And those services need to follow people, and in some cases, it’s difficult.”

Commissioner Mary Mayhew says DHHS has committed significant resources to ‘Housing First’ projects such as Florence House.

But she says the department wants to focus on independent choice and integration into the community by placing people with individual landlords, sometimes called “scattered site” housing.

“So we certainly are interested in any ideas and projects. But I do have concerns about anything that detracts from consumer choice, The independence of deciding where they’d like to live, to be able to have housing vouchers that follow the individual to where they want to live, and that are reflective of their needs, their interests.”

Mark Swann of Preble Street wants state officials to take a closer look at how ‘Housing First’ works and saves money.”We’ve got our hand out saying, come on down; we want to work with you. We want to have a partner in this.’

And Utah’s Lt. Governor Spencer Cox extends an invitation to Maine’s governor and human services officials.

“Come spend some time in Utah. We’d like to show you what we’re doing, we’d love to show you our success story, and we think it can happen in Maine.”