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400 of 'Most Vulnerable' Homeless to Get Apartments

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

In an ambitious effort to end chronic homelessness in the District, city officials yesterday announced plans to move 400 of the "most vulnerable" people into apartments by Oct. 1.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said those residents, many of them living on the streets during the day and in shelters at night for more than a decade, will receive permanent housing with extensive social services, including medical care, mental health counseling and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Under the "Housing First" plan, issues such as mental illness and substance abuse will not bar the chronically homeless from being placed in permanent housing, city officials said.

"We are making sure our homeless neighbors are moved into housing and get the supportive services that are needed . . . whatever they are," Fenty (D) said at a news conference. The effort is the first major step in his pledge to provide 2,500 such placements by 2014.

Fenty made the announcement in the 3500 block of Georgia Avenue NW, which was the proposed site of the new home of Central Union Mission, a homeless shelter for men that sold its Logan Circle headquarters and must relocate by fall 2009. But facing strong community opposition to a Georgia Avenue relocation, Central Union Mission had been working with the city to find a downtown site.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who also opposed relocating the shelter to Georgia Avenue, called the deal between Central Union and the city a win-win.

Fenty said yesterday that the District would take over the Georgia Avenue site and build a mixed-income housing development, which would include some units of permanent supportive housing for the homeless, as well as affordable and market-rate units. In exchange, Central Union Mission would take over the Gales School Shelter, a former city-funded site near Chinatown that had been under renovation for several years, to house homeless women.

In addition, the city will close the Franklin School Shelter, off K Street NW, which houses about 400 men. The shelter has a history of structural problems but has support from residents and advocates for the homeless, who fear losing a downtown shelter that serves a large population.

"We've very supportive of building affordable housing stock, including permanent supportive housing," said Amber Harding, a staff lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "But we hope the mayor will wait to reduce shelter capacity until we actually show that there is a decrease in demand for emergency shelter."

Harding said that relocating Central Union Mission downtown did not necessarily make up for closing the Franklin School Shelter because the mission housed less than half the men that Franklin did and had certain rules about accepting the homeless, which Franklin did not.

"It's not clear that Central Union is an exact match to serve the population of Franklin," she said.

Department of Human Services Director Clarence H. Carter said that once chronically homeless individuals are moved from shelters into permanent housing, space would become available to accommodate the men from the Franklin School Shelter.

Also, the city said it would move homeless women who sleep in a cafeteria on the grounds of the old D.C. General Hospital into one of the facility's buildings, allowing the shelter to expand to round-the-clock operation and to offer three meals daily, housing placement and other support services.

The philosophy behind the District's Housing First plan was pioneered in New York in the 1990s by the nonprofit group Pathways to Housing, which promoted housing as a basic human right that should not be denied, regardless of mental disability or substance abuse problems. Housing First programs have been replicated in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta and Denver.

On a small scale, Pathways to Housing has been operating in the District for five years and has placed 140 chronically homeless people in housing, said Sam Tsemberis, the program's executive director.

Although it costs about $22,000 to house and provide support services for a homeless person, it can cost more than $50,000 to provide social services if that same person drifts in and out of shelters, hospitals, detox programs and jail, he said.

The District's Department of Mental Health and the Housing Authority have provided funds to help find housing, pay rent and supply social workers, psychiatrists, nurses, peer counselors and employment specialists to give support to the formerly homeless.

Now the city will embark on a large-scale program, which will be financed by a special Housing First Fund, supported by the lease or sale of some city properties, Fenty said. The $19.2 million fund will be administered by the Department of Human Services.

The 400 homeless people will be picked using a "vulnerability index" that will consider the length of time the person has been homeless and any chronic issues "that make that individual more susceptible to disease, death or calamity based on homelessness," Carter said.

In fiscal 2009, the city plans to place 480 more chronically homeless people in permanent housing, officials said.

Staff writer Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

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