Ready or Not, a Home of Their Own

Gregory Hart got an apartment in a program with no preconditions for assistance.
Gregory Hart got an apartment in a program with no preconditions for assistance. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 27, 2007

This is where Gregory Hart lived for most of the past two years: down an alley alongside Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street NW, next to a trash can, curled against a concrete platform. Here, gang toughs assaulted him with a baseball bat. Here, he raised rats in a box. Here, he relied on a dog and a cat -- Bam Bam and Little Bam Bam -- to wake him if danger lurked. Here, passersby called him "retard" and shouted at him to "get a job."

And this is where Gregory Hart has lived since last Thursday: in a spacious, sunny, well-heated three-room apartment he has entirely to himself, with a stove where he can cook chicken and gravy, and with a blue comforter he chose at Target and a bed where he can sleep as long as he wants without fear of attack.

Hart, 53, has spent long chunks of his life on the streets of Washington. Mentally ill and in poor health, he has drifted through periods of drinking and drugging. Dismissed as mentally incompetent from an early age, he never attended regular school and couldn't read or write until adulthood.

"My mother tried to keep me in the house when I was young because nobody liked me," he says. "I was rejected by the population."

Hart would still be in the alley this week if not for a small but fast-growing nonprofit group called Pathways to Housing that puts chronically homeless people into their own apartments -- with daily support from social workers -- even if they're not sober, even if they lack basic housekeeping skills.

Most plans for the homeless involve moving them through shelters and group homes until they prove they are ready for permanent housing by staying sober and going to treatment for a substantial time.

But under a model called Housing First, groups such as Pathways take people as they are, in part because housing is a basic right and in part because it's cheaper. It costs $23,000 a year to care for people who have someplace to live vs. more than $40,000 a year to give the homeless the emergency services they require -- hospital ER care, detox, hours of police attention, endless trips through the court system.

In four years in Washington, Pathways has taken 130 homeless people off the streets, about 90 percent of whom are still in housing. Landlords like to rent to Pathways clients rather than other renters on public benefits because although homeless people arrive with many problems, they are closely supervised by the organization's treatment team.

In a federally funded study, 225 homeless people with severe mental illnesses were randomly placed in either a Housing First program or a traditional care model in select cities. After two years, 80 percent of the Housing First participants were still in housing, compared with 34 percent of those put through the standard approach.

As it turns out, there's a side benefit to getting the chronically homeless off the streets: Although many continue to drink and use drugs, they tend to do less of those things.

Hart still drinks, still hears voices. But he says he's drinking less because he's far from the temptations at the shelters, safe from the cold and from nights that seem as if they'll never end.

"Like many homeless people, Greg was drinking to manage his mental illness or to fall asleep in difficult conditions," says Christy Respress, Pathway's Washington program director. "When they get into housing, they often don't drink as much because they have a warm room and a real bed."

Still, Hart faces a hard road. "Getting people into housing is the easy part," Respress says. "The hard part is staying there."

Hart's life has been an excruciating series of humiliations and traumas. One of nine children who grew up at the Sursum Corda project off North Capitol Street, Hart tells of his brothers and sisters who were shot to death or took their lives, of murders and other unspeakable acts he's seen on the streets.

At another alleyway where he used to sleep, he broke into tears at the memory of one midnight assault. Less than half a block later, when a police cruiser blasted its siren, Hart yelped and bounced back into a chain-link fence, quivering until he was assured that the police weren't coming for him.

One block later, we ran into two women who grew up with Hart but hadn't seen him in decades. "Squeaky!" they shouted -- his boyhood street name -- and hugged him tight. Within five minutes, one woman had Hart's brother on the cellphone, and the two spoke for the first time in years.

"I'm back," Hart cried out. "I'm baaaaack. I got my own apartment, and I want to see you, my brother."

Pathways counselors will visit Hart daily at his new place in the Deanwood section of Northeast, enroll him in treatment, help him manage his money and eventually nudge him back toward the world of work. They've gotten him back Social Security payments he's eligible for because he worked a maintenance job for many years. One-third of his benefits go toward his rent; Pathways pays the rest, using federal and District funds.

For now, Hart is settling in. He has ideas about decoration: "Posters are for young people. If it's not in a frame, it's not going on the wall." As deliverymen bring in his mattress, Hart shakes with glee. "Pinch me! It's still not real," he says.

Then, when the men carry in a plush off-white love seat and plop it down in the living room, Greg Hart lowers himself into the deep cushions.

"Oh," he says. "Oh. Oh. That's pretty." In a few seconds, he's drifting off.

"Potomac Confidential" returns next week athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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