Stable housing through Housing First programs can end chronic homelessness and lead to engagement with services that support recovery.
I have been inspired by the many stories of the people who I have encountered in the nearly 20 years of working in the field. However, there is one story in particular that has motivated me over the last several years. Prior to joining my current employer I was the lead for homelessness strategic planning for a Continuum of Care (CoC).
I met Martin (not his real name) at a Project Homeless Connect event. Among all the hustle and bustle of people streaming in, seeking services, lining up for dental care, or signing up for legal aid, I saw Martin. He walked into the church community room with a gruff look on his face, paying no mind to anyone. Martin had wiry long blonde hair, which seemed to be growing out of control; he immediately sat down to get his haircut. Within minutes he looked like a new man, as his demeanor changed and a smile began to grow on his face. It was at this moment that Martin became fixed in my memory.
Martin’s story became clearer when I saw him drinking on a picnic table near my office parking lot. At this point, I realized that Martin was living on a hill above my office. I would see him every day from my office window. The irony of this was not lost on me, as our offices housed not only myself—charged with organizing a community-wide response to homelessness—but the administrative offices for Health and Human Services.
I eventually learned more about Martin through connections with the local day center providing case management. Martin was a Vietnam War veteran; he had been homeless for more than ten years and was suffering from a substance use disorder. I also learned Martin’s routine by observing him out my window, where I noticed that he would spend much of his time during the day drinking at the picnic table. On days that I would not see him I would worry and call his case manager to learn he was in jail or that his tent had burned down.
Although Martin was one of many individuals and families that I came to know over the years, Martin was a constant reminder of the need to do more to find permanent options for persons who are experiencing chronic homelessness along with substance use disorders. Martin became the inspiration for the introduction of a new Housing First program. I was able to use Martin’s story and examples of the success of the Housing First model in other communities to secure funding for a program which would permanently house the most vulnerable chronically homeless people in the community. The program placed no conditions on sobriety or participation in services.
Once the program was up and running it took some time for Martin to consider housing, but he is today successfully and happily housed. Martin has engaged more in services and has cut back on his drinking. He still has a drink at the same picnic table, but at the end of the day he has a safe, stable foundation from which to continue to make positive changes in his life.
Learn more about Housing First at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Find information about the CoC Program at HUD Exchange.
This article was originally published as a Voices from the Field Blog post. Find the latest SAMHSA Blog posts about behavioral health and homelessness.