Since 2010, homelessness has gone down in most places in the U.S., but not in Wyoming. A national report found that in 2013 Wyoming had nearly a thousand homeless people, up 64-percent in that time. About a quarter of those people are chronically homeless. Now, Casper wants to try a program focused on helping those individuals. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports.
IRINA ZHOROV: A chronically homeless person, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is someone who has a disabling condition, like a mental illness or substance abuse problem and who has been continuously homeless for at least a year or has had recurring episodes of homelessness. Eddie Martinez fits that definition. He has a mental health diagnosis and grew up in a family that was often homeless.
EDDIE MARTINEZ: I lived a lot more out on the streets than I did in a house between the ages of about 9 and 11 and a half. From the time I was 18 on up though I’ve only actually owned an apartment one time and it was for a month.
ZHOROV: Today, Martinez is 25 years old. He’s staying in a Casper Housing Authority campus that will function until at least the end of summer. But he says his lack of permanent housing in the past was debilitating.
MARTINEZ: For me most days I woke up exhausted still, so it was hard to keep a job, exhaustion, not being able to eat right, not being able to take a shower right.
ZHOROV: And he says having permanent housing would not only help him feel safer and more productive, it would allow him to deal with his other issues, too.
MARTINEZ: It would set up the door to take meds on more of a daily basis, more of a routine basis. It would help with being able to, when things are getting rough, to be able to sit down somewhere, comfortably, and figure the stuff out and unwind and relax and kind of work through these things, rather than being rushed all the time and stuck in a heightened state of I guess paranoia, if you will.
ZHOROV: Housing First is an initiative geared towards people like Martinez. Brenda Eickhoff is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Natrona County. She’s the one working to get the program started.
BRENDA EICKHOFF: The concept is really we will house you and make sure you are warm. What we find happens after that is those individuals become much more comfortable and are much more willing to participate in case management and willing to change the things that might be causing them problems such as substance abuse or maybe taking medication for a mental health issue.
ZHOROV: Housing First is different from emergency housing programs, like shelters, in that it’s permanent, provides single-unit private housing rather than dormitory style accommodations, and it also has fewer rules. For example, there aren’t really any consequences for drinking in your apartment, something that’s prohibited in most shelters.
Participants pay $30 per month or 30-percent of their income and still have access to a case worker who can help them with anything from job or disability applications to taking care of medical issues. Eickhoff says the initial costs of the program are high, but Housing First pilots elsewhere around the country show that it also saves the community money over time. That’s because clients are not using costly services like the emergency room and not spending time in jail.
EICKHOFF: The pilot program that was done in Salt Lake City, they took an average of each one of their individuals that they housed cost the community about $19,000 per year when they weren’t housed. Once they were housed that cost went down to $12,000 per year.
ROBIN ZIMMER: The ones that we see over and over again, month after month, it’s a very small population of people. And so if we could help those folks it would be much cheaper.
ZHOROV: That’s Robin Zimmer, Executive Director of the Comea Shelter in Casper. Her team tried to offer a modified version of the Housing First program to one chronically homeless, alcoholic client they’d been seeing for years. They removed the time limits on housing the shelter usually keeps in place and the man thrived. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, was put on the shelter’s payroll working the front desk, and quickly qualified for transitional housing.
Zimmer says just that one little thing, removing strict time limits on how long someone can stay at the shelter, helps.
ZIMMER: People need that accountability, they need guidelines, they need to know that their time is running out. And that’s true for maybe the average person that doesn’t have a lot of barriers. But when someone’s mentally ill or chronically addicted or just has other things, not everyone responds at the same rate. And so to have more of a cookie cutter plan we were setting people up to fail.
ZHOROV: Zimmer’s client recently relapsed. She says because she runs a sober shelter, she’ll have to take away his transitional housing privileges and he’ll have to start over in the emergency shelter. That wouldn’t happen in a full-fledged Housing First program like Eickhoff’s and Zimmer says that’s a good thing.
ZIMMER: Every time someone has to leave and start over they’re just taking more and more resources.
ZHOROV: Eickhoff wants to start with about 15 units and hopes to tap community, local government, foundation grants, and federal grants for funding. Meanwhile, Eddie Martinez says there’s a lot he wants to accomplish, and housing would go a long way towards helping him get there.
MARTINEZ: To be able to buy my own vehicle, to buy furniture for once, even if it, no lie, even if it’s from a thrift store, I wouldn’t mind it at all. To have a relationship, even, on a steady basis. I’ve never really been given the type of opportunity to do it like this.
ZHOROV: Eickhoff hopes to have the first units ready for move in this summer or early fall. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.