A Room and Not Bored: One Path Out of Shelter

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Years ago, when they were often strung out or drunk and their home lives had evaporated, a chilly evening like Saturday, October 17 might have felt raw. The dark fell amid rising wind and spitting rain that pelted harder as the night wore on.

But for the stylish group bathed in the glow of chandeliers, reflected off beveled mirrors, as a deejay spun soul tunes and aromas of chicken and meatballs filled the air of a party room in Harlem, the celebration was what mattered, and nights spent in uncertain circumstances were put behind them.

The several dozen attendees at this gathering were all formerly homeless New Yorkers who had lived, or still do, in residences run by the Jericho Project. A nonprofit organization providing supportive housing – which is permanent, affordable housing that includes social services for disabled or needy people – to homeless men and women, Jericho prides itself on both staying true to the mission of providing a dependable home, while also helping to move up to 15 percent of residents into independent life every year, usually including gainful employment.

While the majority of supportive housing programs specifically serve mentally ill adults, Jericho – like a new crop of supportive housing developments – is aimed at those in recovery from substance addictions.

At the Seventh Annual Alumni Dinner Dance, that final step from a life of need into plain old normalcy – adults living on their own, in the company of family or friends of their own choosing, with work and wages and daily pleasures and puzzles – was described as a wondrous thing. And since most of these former residents have histories of substance abuse, enjoying a party where the strongest libations are coffee and tea is its own achievement.

“I’m definitely amazed. There are no words to describe my gratitude,” is how Crystal Scott, who lived in Jericho for five years and has been on her own for another five, described the experience of being at the Alhambra Ballroom that night. “I’ve been through a lot of turmoil and the challenges of life.”

Scott, 49, recalled a night years ago when she decided she’d had enough drinking and smoking crack. She left a friend’s house and began an odyssey on foot, going from one program to another, seeking help. Eventually she ended up at the Jericho House in Harlem, which led to her first job. Now she’s been clean for 11 years, works as a medical coordinator at a school for developmentally disabled adults, and is involved in the lives of her five adult children and 15 grandchildren.

Wearing a sparkling tunic, with twists pulled back in a crown, and having already done her part to spark the party by inviting a “shy young man” to dance, Scott said she finds these annual gatherings inspirational.

“It’s good to be mentally, emotionally and spiritually stable, instead of living in fear – and mostly fear of myself. Now I can extend that inner love to others,” she said, with a beatific smile that left no doubt.

Toward independence

The reasons why people become homeless are varied, so the ways to re-house them successfully are too. George Nashak, deputy commissioner for adult services at the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS), says the majority of homeless people are suffering traumas of a relatively transitory nature, and can find homes again on their own or with a rental subsidy. For people who are mentally ill, however, or in recovery from addiction, supportive housing is considered one of the best ways to enable them to live more independent, healthy and stable lives. Although Nashak maintains that a year spent in city shelter costs about the same as a year of supportive housing – $24,000 – advocates say supportive housing is far cheaper, almost half the cost. New York City and state are the nation’s biggest investors in developing supportive housing; Mayor Bloomberg and then-Gov. George Pataki signed the “New York/New York III” agreement in 2005 committing to create 9,000 new units in 10 years. (New Jericho projects are among those funded.)

Jericho Project executive director Tori Lyon backs the goals and methods of traditional supportive housing, but thinks something more should be added: an emphasis on identifying and realizing clients’ vocational aspirations. “We believe that transformative change can happen with each individual,” Lyon says. Achieving stability is not enough. The 280 residents of the organization’s six program locations – one residence in Harlem, the rest in the Bronx – know they can stay indefinitely as long as they pay monthly rent (which comes either from their own income or via public assistance). But Jericho also asks a question that residents may not have heard since they were little: What do you want to be?
For those residents ready and willing to engage in that discussion, Jericho will provide vocational counseling to educate people in the habits and etiquette of the work world, training for specific jobs, assistance with interviews and job placements, and continuing support once employed. When residents leave Jericho, aftercare counseling services continue for two years.

Lyon recalls two residents who wanted to become morticians, another who aimed to own a pizza parlor. There was a woman who wanted to become a nurse – but ended up going the phlebotomist’s route, because the training was only six months. She got a driver’s license too, and now she drives around and takes blood and earns $20 per hour.

In 2008, according to Lyon, 53 residents found new jobs at an average starting salary of $10.85 an hour. (The state minimum wage is $7.25.) About two-thirds were full-time, one-third was part time, and 84 percent of those hired in 2007 and 2008 kept their jobs for six months. What generates those results “is really not rocket science – it’s a little more counseling time,” she says. “I think it’s believing in people and having expectations.”

Having Marcel Robinson by residents’ sides is part of that. As Jericho’s job developer, he identifies suitable job openings, builds relationships with employers, matches residents with jobs – and then provides encouragement and advice once they’re placed. Robinson sells employers on the idea of hiring people who fall into the “hard to employ” category and assures them he’s there to respond to any problems.

“You’re not in it alone,” he tells the employers. And to workers: “You have to own up to the responsibility of employment. Don’t let me down.”

The tight job market is making his work harder. One morning last week, Robinson attended a breakfast for job developers like him who are trying to cope. “The economy is so hard right now, we have to put our heads together to keep our hard to employ population working,” he said.

Ted Houghton, executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York – a members’ association for nonprofit supportive housing developers and providers statewide – counts himself among those enthusiastic about Jericho’s approach to getting its residents employed. Of those working, Houghton said, “It never stops impressing me how much these folks are able to achieve.”

More housing help

For residents to leave Jericho, of course, they need housing in addition to work. Last year, 21 residents moved out with the assistance of Section 8 vouchers, which enable a person to rent an apartment, pay one-third of her income toward rent, and have the federal government pay the rest. For the past two years, DHS has offered Section 8 vouchers to all supportive housing tenants whose sponsors have requested them through its Moving On program.

“What’s a little bit unique about the Jericho Project is that they are committed to helping people move from supportive housing to even more independent living,” said Nashak from DHS. Based on the success of Jericho and other programs, he saw an opportunity to facilitate residents’ moving into their own homes, in order to free up supportive housing spaces for others in need.

“We’ve rolled this out, and many providers have taken advantage of it” – no voucher requests have been turned down, he said. Programs also receive a $2,000 stipend per resident who moves out, in acknowledgement of turnover costs.

Anthony McCoy, president of the alumni committee leading the 200-strong Jericho alumni network, credits a Section 8 voucher with giving him his current apartment in the Bronx. A “hard user” of drugs for almost half his life, McCoy has been clean for more than a decade. He spent several years in a Jericho residence, took computer courses – “I got seven certificates on my wall from Jericho” – worked in city parks, and got his life back. Now a physical disability prevents him from working, but he’s thrilled with his fiance, his family, his home.

“God has blessed me. He has given me some great breaks,” a buoyant McCoy, 54, said at the dinner dance. “I can enjoy this naturally, no drugs, no alcohol. This is beautiful. I love this way of life.”

Research and pilot programs are beginning to document the long-term effectiveness of supportive housing for substance abusers, says Nashak. The bulk of supportive housing built over the years has been for the mentally ill, but that’s beginning to change. “A lot of people counted them out and said they wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said; it was feared that current users or those in recovery wouldn’t be able to make rent or meet other basic requirements of living in supportive housing. But a local pilot program showed that these groups had the same retention rate, 89 percent, as the mentally ill. “By us experimenting with this … we’ve seen great success,” he said.

University of Pennsylvania policy professor Dennis P. Culhane, who has researched an array of social issues for New York City, also thinks this is an area that shows promise. “Most of the homeless don’t have a severe mental illness, they have a substance abuse history,” says Culhane. Getting them into supportive housing means “they not only reduce their use of expensive services, but they actually get employment, so they become net taxpayers instead of heavy service consumers.”

He’s doing research now to examine low-cost housing options for people with substance abuse issues. The options that exist “need to be scaled up,” he said. “We need to think about it on a broader basis.”
What people want

“I think what we do is very scalable, and it’s not expensive,” says Lyon, who’s been with Jericho for 13 years. She calculates the annual cost per resident at $14,000, by dividing the annual operating budget, minus some amortization, by the number of clients. The vocational services that lead to jobs cost under $2,000. On average, residents move out of Jericho in 2.5 years – and of “graduates,” less than 5 percent return to homelessness and drug addiction, she says.

Jericho Project’s annual budget is about $4.5 million, with half coming from government sources, and the other half made up of tenants’ rent and grants from foundations and corporations. The majority of tenants are referred by DHS.

Kenya Dowe came to Jericho from a shelter. It was 1997, she was skinny and angry and had been on crack. “I became very independent. I grew up real quick,” Dowe recalled at the alumni dinner dance. She’s been on her own for three years now, is training for a building maintenance job, and with the help of a Section 8 voucher, lives in a “beautiful, perfect” apartment in Mott Haven.

Now 44, with a healthy glow, Dowe is happy to be back in touch with her 25-year-old son, whom she left when he was 4. He lives with her mother. Dowe says she calls them every day, and sees them frequently.

That question – what do you want to do with your life? – sometimes comes down to the simplest things, in Lyon’s view. “What most people want is a little money in their pocket and a date.”

Current Jericho resident Jocelyn Page overlapped with Dowe’s time at the residence. Comfortable in an armchair off the dance floor, Page declared that she knows what she wants. “I’m 54 years old and it’s time for me to settle down and get my act together,” she said. But she’s through with the drama of romance. “It’s time to get me a life. And get me a little chihuahua.”

– Karen Loew

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