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A Bastion Of Hope For D.C.'s Homeless

Shelter Offers Model For On-Site Services

By Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page A01

Ending homelessness in the District begins here, in the narrow hallway of the shelter on New York Avenue NE in Ivy City.

Men clutch white slips of paper, signaling their appointments with government employees seated behind wooden desks. Instead of going out and trying to navigate a fluid network of social services, the residents can set up meetings with the same counselors from week to week, getting assistance with job referrals, food stamp applications and health problems.

Jesse Brown, 42, a resident of the Ivy City shelter, does chores there, including washing windows. (Photos Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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This on-site counseling, which is touted on fliers posted in the 360-bed shelter, began a year ago and is the model for an aggressive approach to getting the homeless back on their feet, city officials say. They plan to offer a similar menu of in-house services at a recently opened 150-bed men's shelter in Southeast Washington and at the 177-bed Gales School shelter near Union Station when it reopens next year.

"This is the way we are moving in the future," said Yvonne D. Gilchrist, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.

Drop-in shelters that offer little more than a bed and an evening meal are still needed for some homeless people, she said, "but we must move to the next level."

Like the District, state and local governments nationwide are trying to address homelessness as a temporary life circumstance with an expiration date.

Since 2003, 185 jurisdictions have put together 10-year plans to end homelessness. The District announced its plan in January. Maryland officials convened a statewide summit in December to develop such a blueprint, and Virginia adopted one last year. The Alexandria City Council adopted a 10-year plan last month.

It is too early to judge the effectiveness of the programs, said Philip Mangano, director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a coalition of 20 federal agencies. But he pointed to progress being made in some cities. In San Francisco, for instance, officials recently reported a 25 percent reduction in the number of homeless people living in the streets, and in Philadelphia, the number of people sleeping in historic Rittenhouse Square decreased from 850 to fewer than 200 as the city moved them into housing programs.

"The old status quo of ad hoc crisis intervention is the most expensive . . . and the least effective," Mangano said.

About 8,250 homeless men, women and children are in the District, according to a 2004 count. In addition to new services at shelters, the major elements of the city's 10-year plan are increased spending on an emergency assistance fund to prevent evictions and the addition of 6,000 units of affordable housing, either through new construction or housing vouchers. The city will spend $22 million on the first year of the plan, beginning Oct. 1.

Homeless advocates applaud the city's goals but say its plan does not address the most urgent problem: the loss of shelter space in and near downtown. The 170-bed Randall School shelter at Half and I streets SW closed in November when the building was sold to the Corcoran Museum of Art's College of Art and Design. And in March, city officials announced that the 223-bed Franklin School shelter, at 13th and K streets NW, will close at an undetermined date, with the property to be redeveloped as a boutique hotel.

Some of the men who used those shelters suffer from mental illness and spend much of their time on the streets, close to feeding programs and other social services in the downtown area. Advocates argue that this chronically homeless population is unlikely to travel to shelters in Northeast and Southeast, let alone stay long enough to benefit from new on-site services.

Gilchrist, the human services director, acknowledged that "wraparound services" are designed for people who stay in shelters for an extended period. "For those who are outside, we have outreach teams to go and get them into shelters," she said.

Mary Ann Luby, outreach coordinator for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the city needs to allocate more resources to those teams. She said the plan is not focused enough on helping individuals who don't trust shelters after spending years on the streets.

"The only thing that changes us as human beings are relationships, not services," Luby said. "I think we have a view that we are fixing people -- and people fix themselves when they are feeling comfortable and getting support."

At the Franklin School shelter, officials say a little more than 50 percent of the men are chronically homeless, meaning that they have been homeless at least four times in the past three years or continuously for more than a year.

Kirk Thomas, the coordinator at Franklin, said he has worked for months, sometimes years, to get some clients to trust and open up to him. He said he has developed a rapport with a man in his sixties who is psychotic and was homeless for 20 years before he started to come to the shelter in 2002.

"When we close, he's back out on the streets," Thomas said.

There are no on-site services at Franklin, but many men walk a few blocks to a services center sponsored by the Downtown Business Improvement District. Services from laundry to job training and addiction counseling are available five days a week, and more than 20 government and nonprofit entities participate.

Although on-site counseling is theoretically more convenient, the start-up of the program at the New York Avenue shelter has not been entirely smooth.

The city's Department of Employment Services, for example, chose to cut back the hours it has a staff member at the shelter so that an employee could spend more time at the agency's main office. Gilchrist, whose department had no control over that decision, said her goal is to increase employment services from 20 hours a week to 30 hours, and she is seeking additional funding in the 2006 city budget.

Two human services caseworkers will be at the shelter by the end of April to help manage the program, Gilchrist said. And in December, the shelter will have an on-site health clinic funded by a $200,000 federal grant.

In the next two weeks, Gilchrist said, she will meet with other agency directors to secure staff commitments for the Southeast shelter, which opened Nov. 1 on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital. The shelter has not offered wraparound services, but the goal is to begin doing so this summer.

In the meantime, some of the homeless at New York Avenue are making the transition. On average, about 196 of the shelter's 300 residents receive voluntary on-site services, with the rest declining the help. As of Sept. 30, about 20 men had left the shelter for permanent housing, the latest figure available, officials said.

Howard May, 51, was not homeless before becoming sick with diabetes in 2001 and losing his job and apartment. He has been staying at the New York Avenue shelter for a few months.

On a recent morning, he sat in the lobby after his appointment with employment counselor Gerald Hardy.

"He's doing the best he can," May said of the counselor, who had referred him to a food services job.

Still, the counselor comes to the shelter only twice a week. "It's not a round-the-clock service," May said.

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