Success Stories Show Why 'Housing First' Supporters Say Its Working to Solve Homelessness

Published : Friday, June 7, 2019 | 4:55 AM

Lef-Stephanie Church is grateful to have a home she says - Pasadena Media / Right-Shawn Morrissey of Union Station - Courtesy image

When senior citizen Stephanie Church got laid off from her job in 2004, little did she think she would become homeless, sleeping wherever she could at night, lugging all that was left of her belongings around by day.

“I had seen the statistics that said many people are two paychecks away from homelessness,” Church said. “I never thought I was one of them.”

Senior citizens are the fastest rising segment of the homeless population in Pasadena, statistics show. And while it is challenging for them to find a place to live, it is even more challenging to find a permanent home for the homeless who have afflictions, illness or who need psychiatric and medical care.

From the Pasadena Homeless Count/2019

As homelessness becomes more of a national crisis, Church’s story of homelessness in elder years is all too common. When she was a $40,000-a-year administrator for Los Angeles County, she was making a good salary, driving a nice car and living in a beautiful townhome.

“I had been an administrator in charge of a $250,000 budget,” Church recalled. “I was laid off in 2004, then moved away to start all over again. I was laid off again in 2008, and that’s when my homeless journey started.”

Though she has now been living at Heritage North senior facility in Pasadena since it opened two years ago, Church’s shoulders still ache from carrying her belongings around from her time on the streets. She also carries the memory and trauma from her time as a homeless senior citizen. She slept many times on the back porch of a friend’s house, or in someone’s garage.

“I didn’t want to be a burden,” she said. “People offered, but you don’t want to be a burden.”

William Huang, Director of Housing for the City of Pasadena, said the number of homeless seniors is increasing at an alarming rate.

“We have seen an increase in homeless seniors,” he said. “In Pasadena we’ve seen a 116 percent increase in homeless seniors in the last year, and in L.A. County there’s been a 22 percent increase in the last year.

Huang said while 9 percent of the general population in Pasadena is comprised of people aged 55-61, that age demographic comprises 20 percent of Pasadena’s homeless population.

“We have older individuals way over-represented in our homeless population,” he said. “It’s also our fastest segment of our homeless population. It’s a real serious concern for us in Pasadena but also in L.A. County.”

Stephanie used the available resources in Pasadena, where some of her family members live. Through Senior Community Service Employment Program operated by SER National, she received retraining skills for low-income, older workers. She took a position as an intern with the City of Pasadena. While riding a bus to her job, she saw Heritage North being built and put in an application.

Stephanie Church in her senior housing - Courtesy of Pasadena Media

“By the grace of God, I was selected from the lottery and I have a home,” she said. “There is no greater joy than having your own key that goes in your own door to your own home. I have a beautiful bed. I have everything I need.”

Like Stephanie, another local has overcome the challenges of homeless yet ironically deals with it every day, professionally.

Shawn Morrissey is director of advocacy and community engagement for Union Station Homeless Services. He was once chronically homeless.

“If you had seen me 17 years ago, I would have looked like what everyone thinks homeless people look like,” he said. “Wild hair, dirty and I had afflictions.”

He said that he was directed to services in Pasadena for treatment and the help he needed. It led ultimately to his new career, of helping others.

Shawn worked with people living on the streets and has a particularly keen insider’s perspective.

“You hear people say how the people living on the street don’t want to be in a home,” Morrissey said. “There is nothing further from the truth. In the time I have been working with homeless I have never encountered anyone who said they prefer to be on the street.”

He said he has seen plenty of success stories. It’s nothing short of remarkable how putting a “housing first” initiative in place helps people find their way, he said.

Morrissey said one public misconception has created a major hurdle homeless advocates face.

“The public thinks ‘Why should these homeless people get a free apartment?’” he said. “But everyone is paying something. Everyone who has an apartment is paying something.”

Those people in subsidized housing are paying at least 30 percent of their salary towards their housing, he said.

Huang said the challenge is getting enough housing. The number of homeless, both chronic and short-term homeless, far exceeds the amount of housing available, he said.

“We traditionally have housed chronically homeless individuals in apartments,” he said. “Those are existing apartments or we’ve had to build developments specifically for that population. But we have difficulty on both sides. Finding the appropriate site and getting it built can take years. And the other difficulty is finding landlords who are willing to house homeless, because rental subsidies are less than market rate. Landlords can rent to private individuals and make more money than they can with chronically homeless despite the subsidy. We have incentives for landlords and we’re trying to build new developments.”

Huang said there is another factor at play.

“The other population — the bigger population — are those folks are not chronically homeless,” he said. “Half of the homeless population is chronically homeless and the other half is not. They need short-term subsidies and some services.”

Huang said the program the City has put in place, called Rapid Rehousing, is a program that helps people in emergency situations.

“This is a program for folks who are employable, they need short term housing and a job and eventually they can pay for their own housing.”

The housing-jobs collaborative helps people who need short term help from six months to two years. The program targets people who are able to work and within a shorter period of time can be back on their own.

Huang said another area of focus that is critically important is to help the people who are at risk of becoming homeless.

“It’s better for us to help people stay housed, rather than let them become homeless then get them into housing,” he said. “If someone is behind in their rent and they get sick and maybe they’re working a job with no sick leave but now they’re healthy and back at work, we fund a nonprofit organization to help them pay their back rent and we work out a repayment plan. We prevent people from falling into homelessness as much as we can.”

Shawn said these programs are working.

“When you put housing first there is a 97 percent retention rate. People do not go back onto the street when they have a place to live and they have a job,” Shawn said.

He pointed out that he thinks that homelessness has developed into a crisis over the last 40 or 50 years in part because of policies in place.

“It wasn’t like whole segments of the population just started to make bad choices,” he said. “There are structural and systemic causes and a lot has to do with policies, the deinstitutionalizing of state hospitals.”

He said when the system bends to the people rather than making the people bend to the system, great things happen. When people have a bed and a roof over their heads they can get the other parts of their lives in order, no matter the age.

Huang summed the sad situation and the City’s dedication to help.

“Our seniors have worked their whole lives, they’ve done all the right things, they’ve done the thing they were supposed to do — but the safety net is not there. They outlived their retirement and they need some assistance,” Huang said. “The City is committed to help folks live out their ‘golden years’ in a respectful and affordable way.”

“It is very easy to give up hope when you are homeless,” Stephanie Church said. “I want to tell all the homeless people, ‘Don’t give up.’ I cry thinking of people living on the street. But now I also cry from happiness when I put the key into the door of my own home again.”

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