FREQUENT FLIERS GROUNDED:
NEW HOUSING FOR HOMELESS

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Shawanda Stepheny wasn’t expecting a second chance. Arrested at age 16 for carrying a weapon, she spent the next seven years in and out of jails and homeless shelters. Released from a stint at Rikers Island or Bedford Hills, she was often rearrested within months. “When I came back to jail, I felt like I was home,” she said. “I felt like only prison loved me.”

Hoping to break that cycle, the Women’s Prison Association recently offered Stepheny a different home, a spacious three-story house in Bushwick she shares with seven other women. Sleeping in her own room for the first time, she now dreams of becoming a social worker. “I don’t see myself going back to prison,” she said.

Stepheny is one of roughly 100 clients expected to benefit from a new pilot project called the Frequent Users Service Enhancement (FUSE). Part of a broader collaboration between the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the Department of Correction (DOC), FUSE provides rental subsidies and intensive services to ensure that clients stay housed.

“If you’re used to living in big systems, it can be difficult,” explained Kathleen Coughlin, deputy commissioner for programs and discharge planning at DOC. “The goal is to have somebody literally holding the person’s hand.”

The initiative was born in 2003, when DOC Commissioner Marty Horn and DHS Commissioner Linda Gibbs began to notice ways in which their populations overlapped. A small chunk of New Yorkers, often those suffering from drug addiction or mental illness, were repeatedly getting arrested for minor quality-of-life crimes, spending a short time in jail, and then ending up homeless again. The pattern is a costly one, both in terms of human suffering and taxpayer dollars: A shelter bed costs roughly $55 per day; a jail bed is $162, not including medical care and educational services. By comparing data, DOC and DHS isolated a cohort of “frequent fliers,” roughly 700 people who had at least four stays in shelter and four jail terms over the past five years.

In many cases, there’s simply nowhere else for them to go. Palladia, Inc., a local nonprofit, offers supportive housing with services for those recovering from substance abuser. Yet Senior Policy Analyst Joan Montbach estimates that Palladia gets 15-20 applicants for every bed. “There’s no question that there’s a tremendous need,” she said. To address that need, Palladia and three other groups–the Women’s Prison Association, Bowery Residents’ Committee and Samaritan Village–are now housing clients through FUSE.

The program was spearheaded by the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which served as an intermediary between the city, service providers and funders. The New York City Housing Authority and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene provided the rental subsides, and the JEHT Foundation kicked in a $650,000 grant for additional services.

While only a few clients have been housed thus far, the nonprofits involved are optimistic that the model will work. Housing is a strong incentive for those trying to change their lives, said Warren Wright, program director at Bowery Residents’ Committee. “The morale is there, the motivation,” he said. The only downside, he explained, is having to overlook other clients who also need housing but don’t meet the criteria. As the program develops, he hopes it will eventually be open to a wider pool.

FUSE’s impact will be studied by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which will use each client’s prior history of homelessness and incarceration as a baseline to measure the program’s success. “The goal is to see what we can do differently here,” said Coughlin. “We know how to lock people up, but are there other things we can do that are more productive for them, their families and the city?”

To Michael Williams, FUSE sounds like a godsend. Now 28, he’s spent his entire adult life without a stable home. He estimates that he’s been arrested eight times, mostly for jumping subway turnstiles in search of a warm place to sleep. “If you haven’t been out there,” he said, “don’t ask me how I survive.”

Williams isn’t sure if he qualifies for FUSE, but said he’d jump at the chance to participate. “I’d be on that quick, fast and in a hurry,” he said. “I’d be like ‘where do I sign?'”

–Cassi Feldman