I hadn’t seen Ray for a while, but there he was Thursday at our Downtown Hospitality Center. Before I could say anything in greeting, he burst forth, “I’m in housing now!”
Hey! That’s great!” I said. “Nearby?”
He gave me the address, then told of first being introduced to the place. “They warned me when they were taking me there that it was pretty small,” he said. “But when they opened the door and I looked in, it looked like a palace to me!”
Ray then went on to say that getting into housing was only a start. He was going to save up from what he got from day labor and “I’m going to get a new car. Well, not a new car, but a car that’s at least new to me. And then once I build my credit up, I hope I can move on to another place.”
Every time we hear that one of our guests has gotten off the streets and into housing, it is a little victory. But allow me to reiterate here: for many, housing is not enough.
“Housing First” has become the governing principle in addressing the issue of homelessness nationwide. The concept is that, for whatever other issues a person might be coping with—addiction, mental illness, lack of education, etc.—provide the stability that comes with housing them first, then address the other needs. And studies have shown that the “Housing First” approach has worked much better than others that have preceded it.
But in many cases, whether one stays in housing depends on that subsequent follow-through. Karen Lee Batts, who recently died from hypothermia in a downtown parking garage, had been in housing. But then she started behaving erratically, had missed her rent payments, and was evicted. The “revolving door” for housed homeless people being made homeless again is not uncommon; many of our Nightwatch guests themselves have been part of that story.
A story this week on NPR’s “Morning Edition” described how it happens. Profiled was a woman who was moved from LA’s Skid Row into housing but was having trouble staying there because she couldn’t keep up with the rent. Being a high-school dropout who had “almost no work experience and a criminal record,” she could find no one to hire her so she could cover her expenses. While people may be put into housing, “the problem . . . is that at the same time there aren't enough resources for people who need long term or even permanent assistance, the ones who simply can't bootstrap it.”
I think Ray’s going to make it. But not everyone will until we take seriously the need for better mental health intervention, more accessible addiction treatment, and an investment in job- and life-skills training.
We can’t simply write off the Karen Lee Batts-es of our world. The door between homelessness and housing needs to stop revolving.