Tommy Camp's pristine room at Shalom House in Northeast Washington is a world away from the sidewalk grates where he slept for more than 10 years. The pictures of his son, daughter and grandchild, placed reverently on his shelf, speak of restored ties to loved ones, the ability of a man to rise from the ashes.
Once an alcoholic and panhandler, Camp is now a clean and sober maintenance worker at the Library of Congress.
"I feel so good about myself," he said.
And Shalom House, once an abandoned apartment building and now a haven for Camp and 92 other men and women overcoming addiction or other problems, has itself risen from the ashes. It is part of a movement that officials and community activists hope will help to stem chronic homelessness in the Washington area: Single Room Occupancy housing.
Though much maligned as fleabags and flophouses, SROs once filled a need for low-cost housing in America's cities and towns. When they were displaced by gentrification and the wrecking ball, many needy or addicted people were left with nowhere to go but the streets.
But a new kind of SRO, one that provides help, not just cold storage for the poor, is on the rise and gaining popularity as a way of housing the homeless and struggling, from inner-city neighborhoods in Washington and Baltimore to affluent counties such as Montgomery and Fairfax.
The movement toward SROs is part of an evolving "Housing First" philosophy, espoused in one form or another by advocates for the homeless as well as government officials, including Mel R. Martinez, secretary of housing and urban development. The idea is to attack homelessness with housing, rather than continuing to institutionalize it by building shelters. As part of a larger goal of ending chronic homelessness in 10 years, HUD is allocating millions of dollars in new grants to communities to pay for SRO-type housing.
"It's a big paradigm shift," said Sharan London, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless. The movement is buoyed by a broad recognition that a minority of the chronically homeless use a disproportionate amount of government-funded services and would probably be housed more efficiently in permanent settings such as supportive SROs.
An extensive 2001 study of thousands of mentally ill and indigent New Yorkers found that the typical individual used $40,449 worth of publicly funded services while homeless. When people were placed in housing with social programs, that figure fell by an average of $12,145.
"Ending chronic homelessness means we will be permanently housing people with severe mental illness or substance abuse, or dually diagnosed with mental illness and substance abuse," said Steve Cleghorn, who heads the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' Committee on Homelessness.
Besides alleviating their suffering, Cleghorn believes, housing the chronically homeless will free up space in overwhelmed emergency shelters that are now having to turn away short-term homeless individuals and families.
Counties and municipalities struggling with homelessness are eager to know more.
Shalom House -- one of three SROs managed and operated by So Others Might Eat, a District-based nonprofit ecumenical group -- gets visitors from suburban Maryland and Virginia who want to see it firsthand, according to program coordinator Ruth Schickle.
All SROs run a little differently. Before entering Shalom House, those with addiction problems spend months in intensive recovery programs. Once in residence, they must stay sober and pay rent based on a sliding scale. They also receive job training, continuing education and counseling.
"Shalom House is a little different from the old flophouses," said Schickle, touring the clean, well-lighted halls.
Area advocates for the homeless say there is clearly a need for more SROs in the region, where the homeless population is growing.
A one-day count this year by the Council of Governments found 13,982 homeless people, an 8.8 percent increase over the 2001 count. There were also more children and working people among the homeless.
Members of families represented 40 percent of the number. Nearly half of the people surveyed were disabled by mental illness or addiction.
Roughly 1,200 of the area's homeless people, many of them disabled, are chronically homeless. "They have made homelessness a way of life," Cleghorn said.
Jurisdictions are experimenting in various ways with SROs.
In Baltimore, a veterans group transformed a former home for boys into SRO-style housing for homeless vets. Coan Pond, a converted office space in Fairfax County, provides some SRO housing for the working poor. Now Fairfax officials are asking if the concept might have wider applications.
In Montgomery County, shelters are overflowing, and according to the Council of Governments count, homelessness is up nearly 15 percent (to 1,250 people) from last year. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) is moving ahead with plans to purchase an EconoLodge in Gaithersburg to be converted into family units and "personal living quarters" for singles.
The county is under contract to buy the 97-room motel, where it already rents room to house families when space is unavailable at shelters. The site would provide housing and social programs to 17 families and 41 singles, some of them working poor, others struggling with disabilities. Duncan says the county also is looking at properties in Bethesda. "Anything will be great," said Tandis Vaziri-Zanjani, a clinical caseworker at Silver Spring Community Vision, a program that offers social services and job training to the homeless. She had just finished assigning cleanup chores to a roomful of homeless men and women who had arrived at the center that day to use its facilities, including washing machines, telephones and showers.
She says she is seeing increasing numbers of mentally ill and addicted homeless. Many sleep in shelters, but they often spend their days adrift. A room could make a big difference to some of them, she believes, "to get treatment. To have a place."
Franklin Barney, 52, a homeless Vietnam veteran who lost a hand in the war and is spending his nights at a shelter, paused over a pancake breakfast at Shepherd's Table in Silver Spring to lend his support to the SRO concept.
"I think it's a great idea. It's hard being in a shelter and trying to deal with your problems."
Many advocates for the homeless agree that the not-in-my-back-yard movement is one of the biggest obstacles they face. In some cases, NIMBYism "can be a deal killer," Cleghorn said. He believes that advocates are getting better at gaining acceptance for their projects and, when all else fails, using the courts to assert the rights of the residents to live within the community.
"These are people on medication, people taking care of their recovery," he said.
For Tommy Camp, sitting in his room in Shalom House, there is a profound relief in, as he puts it, "not being torn inside."
"No more. No more."
Sometimes when he is leaving work, he sees a friend from his years on the streets.
"He has a heroin problem. His legs are bursting with abscesses. I don't know what his deep-down inside problem is."
Camp tells the friend he ought to come inside.
It is not an easy journey, but Camp knows that even when it looks hopeless, it's possible. "Put your foot forward," he said.