The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A place where they can take their shoes off and say ‘I’m home’

Linwood Blount and his wife, Tamika Blount, shared their first Thanksgiving together in their new apartment.
Linwood Blount and his wife, Tamika Blount, shared their first Thanksgiving together in their new apartment. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In the living room of Linwood Blount's new apartment in Anacostia, an artifact from his former life is prominently displayed: a paper cup from a Subway sandwich shop. It was once so heavily used that much of the green color has worn off. The word "Jesus" is scrawled on it in ballpoint pen.

It serves as a reminder to Blount, 54, of the 30-odd years he spent living on the streets.

That ended in November, after a stranger approached him and his wife at his usual panhandling spot at Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW. "This lady came up and started talking to us, and she began to tell us about this program," he said. "I heard something that my ear caught onto and I said: 'You know what? I like that.' She said: 'You know what? You've been here this long on the street.' She said, 'You need a place.' "

"You need a place" is an informal motto for Pathways to Housing DC, a nonprofit organization that since 2004 has helped more than 700 chronically homeless people with mental health issues move from D.C. streets into their own apartments. Their average age is 50, and many have been homeless for decades. The organization employs the "housing first" model, used widely across the country, which aims to first find clients permanent housing and then address their medical, mental health, substance abuse and other needs.

In September, the organization added a component: a team of five mental health experts embedded in the parks, doorways, street corners and encampments of the downtown area, where homeless men and women spend their days and nights. Going to clients where they are, the logic went, would be more effective than waiting until the clients came looking for help.

Since the team began going out, it has moved 14 men and women off the streets, with about 30 more in the pipeline. The average time it takes to get into housing after they enroll is 43 days, less than half the average of 97 days it takes to house other Pathways clients.

The goal is to reduce homelessness downtown by 50 percent in the next year, focusing on this area because it has the city's largest number of people living on the street (175 to 200 chronically homeless people sleep downtown in the winter, about half of whom have mental illness). On the streets, their life expectancy is 55 to 60, far lower than the national average.

In the District, the number of chronically homeless people has declined by nearly 33 percent over the past decade, even as homelessness among families increased by 46 percent between 2012 and 2016.

Getting homeless people into permanent housing generally takes longer when they have mental illness because communicating and scheduling are more sporadic; that was the impetus for creating the new team, said Christy Respress, the executive director of Pathways. "When people are living on the street they're focusing on daily survival," she said. "It makes the most sense to bring the services to them rather than wait for them to come to us."

The organization receives mostly federal and city funding, along with some private money from donors that include two local business improvement districts. Rents are paid by Pathways and using clients' Social Security and other benefits (tenants pay 30 percent of their income toward rent).

Going out every day to talk to people is key to building trust and getting clients to stick with the program, Respress said. "The number one thing is, relationships, relationships, relationships. They don't just offer mental health services; they ask each person, 'What's important to you and how can I help?' and they truly listen to what they need."

The new team includes a nurse, an addiction specialist, two social workers and a peer specialist, Eric Scott, 46, who himself used to live on the streets and struggled with mental illness and addiction. He carries his old prison ID and a picture of himself during his homeless days to show clients that he was once down and out, too.

"I talk to them on their level, I tell them I've been there," said Scott, who is married now and lives in Southeast Washington. "I won't lie — I sometimes go back and get depressed, but when I go out there and be able to help somebody" — his eyes filled with tears — "just helping somebody turn their life around, because I never thought that my life was going to be where it is right now. . . . My goal is to let them know that if I can do it, they can do it, too."

Recently, Scott has been spending time with David Ford, 38, who has lived on the streets since moving to the District in 2015. Sitting on a park bench in Foggy Bottom recently on a numbingly cold morning, Ford pulled out X-rays of spine injuries he sustained in a fight; he now walks with a cane. He said he hopes to find a home soon.

"I miss security, being able to take showers and feed myself properly, cooking, entertainment, radio — but I basically miss having a place where my children can come visit me," he said.

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Stephanie Thomas, 54, struggled with depression and epilepsy while on and off the streets for 20 years. In November, Pathways found her a two-bedroom apartment in Anacostia. Her first night there, before getting any furniture, she and her boyfriend, Ronald Simms, 53, curled up on the floor together.

"It felt so good, with a little radio, after laying on that hard concrete," Simms said.

The suitcases they used to pull around town now sit empty in a closet. Pointing at a stacked washer and dryer off the kitchen, Thomas said, "It's all nice; I don't got to go outside and wash clothes or nothing."

Her living room also displays a reminder of her homeless days: the blue camping chair she used to sit on at 13th and F streets NW.

"That chair been around," Simms said.

"Oh, yeah," Thomas said softly.

Both Blount and Thomas said they were surprised at how quickly things moved after they were first approached by Pathways team members.

"She kept coming back every day," Blount said. "One day she said, 'Your name came up on the list.' She said, 'Not only we got your name but we've got a spot open.' I didn't want to cry in front of her, but she said, 'It's open for you.' "

Clients are not required to accept the housing unless they like it. Blount immediately liked his — a two-bedroom apartment with hardwood floors where on a recent morning incense wafted through the neatly kept rooms. "I fell in love with this place the way I fell in love with my wife," he said.

His wife, Tamika Blount, 36, smiled. They wed last year. She had been homeless as well, along with her cat, Midnight, whom she had raised from kittenhood and who survived being tossed from a third-story window by someone she was staying with. By the third week of November, the Blounts were in their new apartment, where they shared their first Thanksgiving feast as husband and wife — and as apartment-dwellers.

"I really did it, I cooked a big old turkey, ham, ribs, baked chicken, mustard and collard greens, mac and cheese, corn bread, sweet potato pie, chitlins," Tamika Blount said. "It was amazing. Oh, we felt so good."

The team continues to work with clients on other issues after they are housed. They still deliver clients' medications and take them to doctors' appointments, show them how to shop for groceries, and help them reconnect with family and friends and look for jobs.

To Blount, it is more than he ever hoped for.

"I cried to myself once I got here because it was amazing; I was overwhelmed," he said. "Can you imagine, I could be looking for the next bench" to sleep on. "Here, we can take our shoes off, and the turkey's smelling good . . . and me and my wife can turn the key and say, 'I'm home.' "