"Will work for food." Four words that evoke a distinct image in our country's collective conscience. Typically scrawled on a disheveled piece of cardboard, this axiom is, for many, the summation of the perception of the homeless.
Fortunately, a web of social services in Tulsa is cognizant that the problem is much more complex than a hungry stomach, and they won't stop until homelessness, irrespective of its origin, is eradicated.
Examining the landscape
Six hundred. That's the number of homeless individuals that found themselves in emergency shelters on January 26, 2012. According to the annual "One Night Homeless Consumer Survey," sponsored by the Tulsa's Homeless Services Network, 505 adults and 122 children received a warm bed to sleep in on a frigid winter night in January.
Also called the "Tulsa City-County Continuum of Care Point-in-Time Survey," 68 percent of those in emergency shelters were male and 31 percent were female. The largest race contingency was Caucasian at 59 percent, followed by 23 percent African American and 13 percent Native American. 73 percent of the homeless population in shelters was unemployed and 16 percent had veteran status.
Causes for homelessness were discovered to be wide-ranging. Loss of a job, a mental health diagnosis, substance abuse, dysfunctional households and eviction round out the top five reasons that individuals found themselves in this predicament. Of those surveyed, the typical length of homelessness in Tulsa was 1-6 months. Interestingly, the second most standard duration jumps to 1-2 years.
When asked what services they or their dependents needed, the most telling statistic and highest unprompted response was easily "housing placement." Along with "mental health diagnosis" as the most common type of medical issue of those interviewed, the ingredients that generate an epidemic of chronic homelessness in Tulsa can be undoubtedly perceived.
In addition, Building Tulsa, Building Lives (BTBL) says that more that 20,000 Tulsans live in subsidized housing. 26 percent of working Tulsans cannot afford market rate housing. These additional 150,000 people -- nearly 1 in 4 Tulsans -- are at risk of becoming the next wave of homeless in the city.
Finding the solution
"Shelters alone are not the answer," said Gregory Shinn, associate director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa (MHAT). Shinn would know. He was once the director of the John Heuss House, a drop-in center for the homeless on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, New York. "The shelters in Tulsa are providing a great service to our homeless community, but to make a dent in homelessness we had to have a better system," Shinn said.
That better system, Shinn believes, is to provide safe, decent and affordable housing to homeless people and then wrap social services around them. Enter "Housing First" -- MHAT's organism for tackling chronic homelessness in our city.
New Yorker Sam Tsemberis, CEO of Pathways to Housing and a colleague of Shinn, first created the "Housing First" philosophy in 1992 based on the belief that housing is a basic right for all. Pathways developed this model to provide immediate access to "Permanent Supportive Housing" for the chronically homeless.
This housing includes independent apartments and intensive treatment, as well as support services for people who are homeless, who have psychiatric disabilities and/or substance use disorders. The program's calling card is that it does not require participation in treatment or sobriety as a precondition for housing. For some, this might sound peculiar -- maybe backwards.
Tsemberis responded: "Some people think when you give housing away that you're actually enabling people as opposed to helping them get better. Our experience has been that the offer of housing first, and then treatment, actually has more effective results in reducing addiction and mental health symptoms, than trying to do it the other way."
Home sweet home
Once only a social service agency, MHAT has now also evolved into a multilayered property management company to aggressively accelerate their model. "We have 650 residential units on 27 properties across the city and we are buying more. This is MHAT's innovation on the 'Housing First' model," Shinn said.
According to Shinn, MHAT is aggressively acquiring and rehabbing apartment facilities, as well as building new ones, to house the chronically homeless and mentally ill throughout the city. The "scattered site" model fosters a sense of home and self-determination and it helps speed the reintegration of clients into the community.
MHAT is also attempting to stimulate Tulsa's economy by employing those who are formerly homeless, have a mental illness or have a felony history. "This model creates jobs," Shinn said. "We have 120 employees across 27 properties. Each facility has its own leasing and maintenance departments, in addition to its own housing services."
Through a combination of public and private funding, places like The Cedars apartment complex in midtown Tulsa are undergoing a massive rehabilitation under the auspices of MHAT. The Cedars will soon house those who are now homeless, as well as those with mental illnesses. MHAT uses a mixed model for housing -- only half of the facility's population can be used for the two aforementioned categories of persons. And it works.
"We have an 80 percent success rate in Tulsa," Shinn said. "Eight out of 10 individuals that are placed in housing are still in that facility after a year."
Fiscally, Shinn said, the "Housing First" model bears fewer burdens on the taxpayer as well. Pathways to Housing indicates that the municipal costs per capita per night for "Housing First" facilities are $57. The most expensive cost per night is in a psychiatric hospital at $1185, followed by the emergency room at $519, a jail at $164, and a shelter at $74.
The most aggressive approach to ending chronic homelessness in Tulsa can be found in an initiative facilitated by the Tulsa Community Foundation (TCF) that is uniting more than 60 local nonprofit ambassadors with city, county and foundation leaders. Called "A Way Home for Tulsa," this venture is a sustainable and collaborative process for providing permanent, supportive housing services to the 100 most chronically homeless persons in Tulsa.
A haven of safety
Connally Perry knows all too well the plight of the homeless. After returning from the Vietnam War, Perry was angry and sought comfort by escaping into alcohol, which led to his own homelessness. After being brought off the streets by MHAT into one of their facilities, Perry now finds himself clean and sober and the administrator of housing for MHAT's facilities citywide.
MHAT's crown jewel in Tulsa is unquestionably the two-and-a-half-year-old Yale Avenue Apartments that Perry oversees. The $9.7 million facility was built primarily with private funds but supplemented with public funding. Yale Avenue Apartments includes geothermal heating and cooling, a full commercial kitchen, dining facilities, laundry, workout room, security and outdoor patio areas.
"We have 76 apartments here. 35 of those apartments are a part of the Safe Haven program which houses formerly homeless and the severely mentally ill," Perry said. The Safe Haven program in Tulsa has received national recognition and served as a model for communities much larger than it, including Dallas and Houston.
In fact, homeless and mentally ill individuals from other states come to Tulsa to be a part of the program. Perry said that one resident told him that before he came to Tulsa, someone told him that "if you can't get to heaven, get to Tulsa."
Changing their minds
When the Yale Avenue Apartments project began, it was met with considerable skepticism. They were developed to provide housing to about 50 of the approximately 120 men and women displaced by the closing of the YMCA's residential program in downtown Tulsa. Many of the residents who have made the move from the YMCA to the Yale Avenue Apartments were long-term residents -- veterans, the elderly, the disabled, some formerly homeless and many who had never been homeless. This concerned those living in neighboring areas.
With the assistance of case managers at the YMCA, about 50 people made the move from the YMCA to the Yale Avenue Apartments. The remainder of the YMCA residents received assistance to move into other apartments and housing scattered throughout the community. All were successfully relocated.
Residents who call the Yale Avenue Apartments home live independently. While some will rely on Social Security and Disability as their source of income, many of the residents have jobs. MHAT also has a contract with the Veteran's Administration, and a major focus of the Yale Avenue Apartments has been to provide housing and support services to homeless, disabled veterans.
The building of Yale Avenue Apartments stimulated trepidation that the influx of this population would affect the quality of life in neighborhoods like White City and Forest Orchard. This is when Dr. Darryl DeBorde, pastor of Braden Park Baptist Church, a faith community located just to the south of Yale Avenue Apartments, got involved at the behest of Perry and others.
"I felt like some of the things that were being spoken about were being said out of fear or maybe some ignorance and misrepresented what mental health is all about," DeBorde said. "I wanted to find a way to communicate to my neighbors that it was not about what kind of neighbors they were they going to be but about what kind of neighbors we were going to be."
Since its opening at the corner of Admiral and Yale, crime rates have gone down and property values have gone up. More importantly, those who opposed the construction of the facility are now some of its biggest supporters. "At last year's Christmas banquet, some of the same neighbors who were against this development were here and gave the residents a standing ovation," Perry said.
A missing component
The network of social services wrapped around the chronic homeless and mentally ill have been increasing in strength in Tulsa for many years, but "there was something missing," Perry said. "We sent a survey out a few years ago and asked our residents how important faith and spirituality was to them -- 82 percent said it was very important."
Perry's story matches the data. "I was raised in the church but after I got back from Vietnam, I was angry at God. I tried everything to cope. I tried Veteran Affairs. I tried Alcoholics Anonymous. And not to take anything away from those great organizations, but I was missing a spiritual component in my recovery."
Perry said a heightened spiritual experience changed his life, and he believes this can be the missing piece for many seeking help. "Most of these folks have a deep love of God, but they practice their spirituality alone. Most are not active in the life of a faith community. We are working hard to find out who would like this component and connecting them to faith communities," Perry said.
Enter the Housing Faith Alliance (HFA). In 2009, this organization began its collaboration with the Mental Health Association in Tulsa and Building Tulsa, Building Lives. "This is when, in earnest, we began to seriously look at and try to address the spiritual needs of formerly homeless mentally ill," said Bob Althoff, executive director of Abba's Family, a nonprofit founded in 2007, of which the HFA is a program.
"We work to build bridges of connectivity between the faith community and formerly homeless mentally ill men and women," Althoff said. "The faith community is being transformed and mentally ill men and women are being more fully included in the life of their neighborhoods."
After completing eight years of theological and seminary training, Althoff began working with runaway youth and their families in Oklahoma City at Family Junction in the late 1970s. Many had severe psychiatric issues, trauma, abuse and addictions. Now almost three decades later, Althoff finds himself still serving this population, albeit in a slightly different manner.
The mission statement of Abba's Family is "Transformation of the faith community through relationships of service with the poor." Althoff said, "Notice that it isn't transformation of the poor, but transformation of the faith community. Individuals, the church, the larger faith community and the disenfranchised all come up against their kind of poverty when they participate in the work of Abba's Family. When we wrestle in earnest with our personal poverties in service to others before God, we are transformed."
The outcomes that Abba's Family seeks are in the areas of social connectivity, recovery from mental illness and a spiritual, emotional and relational wellbeing. "We want a sense that one can make a difference," Althoff said, "so that their neighborhood and community can be a better place to live. Most people in our society long for the meaning in life these outcomes bring."
Although Abba's Family targets the faith community as the epicenter of greatest transformation, and has identified the poor and mentally ill to serve as agents of change, they are not the only participants in the outcomes of their work. "When faith communities and formerly homeless mentally ill men and women embrace one another to perform acts of kindness in the neighborhood, everyone is enriched," Althoff said. "Everyone who participates is both a client and recipient of the righteousness of others."
Coequals in the community
Congregation B'nai Emunah has had a long and storied history of community involvement and service. In the summer of 2011, though, they began working on an unheralded project with the Altamont Apartments, a facility operated by MHAT. The evolution in bringing worth to the formerly homeless and mentally ill through their connection with a faith community found its impetus.
Rabbi Marc Fitzerman of B'nai Emunah assembled a group and explained his hope of creating a commercial bakery with residents at Altamont Apartments. Instead of producing multiple items, they focused their attention on only one: the chocolate chip cookie.
Almost a year later, the established Altamont Bakery pairs B'nai Emunah volunteers with formerly homeless residents of the Altamont Apartments to bake chocolate chip cookies every Tuesday night. "They are creating a self-supporting business enterprise which will bring both groups together to build relationships and explore together the challenging world of entrepreneurship," Althoff said. "The residents bring their desire to overcome adversity and members of the congregation bring their considerable business savvy."
Of the nine front-line bakers at Altamont Bakery, four are Altamont Apartments residents. The experience of homelessness and mental illness has meant that they have found it difficult to secure and hold consistent employment. Working in the bakery now means new possibilities -- each one is building a resume for future work. Althoff said, "Each one is receiving a wage born out of the intentionality of justice, mercy and loving kindness. All profits from cookie sales go first to Altamont residents."
Altamont Bakery cookies are currently sold in Tulsa establishments such as Elmer's BBQ, Joebot's Coffee Bar, St. John's Medical Center Cafeteria and Coffee Shop, and Abersons. And the list is growing.
Residents of Yale Avenue Apartments have become integrated into their community as well. "They are involved with our Meals on Wheels program out of Braden Park Baptist as volunteers," DeBorde said. "They go out in the community and serve meals to the neighbors three or four blocks from where they live. They are enthusiastic to serve in the neighborhood."
Locating those in need
One of the critical links to connecting the chronically homeless and mentally ill to permanent housing are teams that canvass the shelters and the streets to identify commendable candidates. The Homeless Outreach Team is a group of case managers, therapists and a psychiatrist who build rapport with those in need. Greer Fites, director of Homeless Services with Family and Children's Services, oversees this operation.
"There are groups of three staff members that go daily to the Day Center for the Homeless, the Salvation Army Center of Hope, John 3:16 Mission and the streets to help those particularly with mental illnesses," Fites said. "The majority of our work is with the shelters."
Fites is also spearheading a pilot project at the downtown library to link those in need of housing with an on-site caseworker. "Librarians will also be trained about mental illness and how to help those that may need assistance at their library," Fites said.
To help individuals develop vital social and spiritual connectivity with the community during the first six to 12 months after they are housed, Abba's Family is also starting a pilot project called Critical Transition Care Teams (CTCT). A CTCT is made up of three to four individuals from a faith community who will be trained and equipped to befriend formerly homeless mentally ill people as they are housed.
"Training will focus on the specific life story of the team's new friend," Althoff said. "It will include an overview of their friend's specific psychiatric disability and provide some general parameters of their most pressing needs."
Abba's Family will provide ongoing consultation and technical support from a licensed clinical social worker trained as a mental health provider and sensitive to each faith tradition involved.
Stranger no more
"I'm torn up over it," Perry said. Sitting in the break room of Yale Avenue Apartments, Perry is visibly shaken. "Johnny was a great guy."
Johnny Fagin, a formerly homeless drug addict and resident of Altamont Apartments, passed away from natural causes over the weekend. "Johnny was family. We will miss him."
Fagin, a renowned indigenous artist who trained in New York, used a French technique to imitate marble and wood treatments for walls and woodwork and had his artwork in places including the Philbrook Museum of Art and local synagogues. "Johnny was a former meth user who couldn't find housing," Perry said. "We took him in, he got clean and sober, and he turned his life around."
"They are family. We are family," said Dale Bacher, supervisor of the Safe Haven program at Altamont Apartments -- essentially making the same remark as Perry. For many formerly homeless and mentally ill in Tulsa, the phrase "Will work for food" has given way to a new term: family.
Instead of public nuisances or salvation projects, the network of social services in Tulsa attempting to purge homelessness in our city look at those they are serving as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.
Family. This one word may embody why chronic homelessness may be on the decline in our city in the very near future.
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