Dismas partners to create homeless housing

WORCESTER — A local foundation yesterday pledged more than $1 million in immediate funding — and as much as $3 million over the next several years — toward the goal of not just stemming the tide of chronic adult homelessness, but eradicating it altogether in the city.

The ambitious initiative, announced by the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, is to begin immediately and will initially target 125 people, an estimated 20 percent of Worcester’s chronic homeless population.

“Chronically homeless people often have mental and physical illnesses exacerbated because they are living on the streets,” said Jan B. Yost, president of the Health Foundation. Her organization has delivered a $587,655 grant to a local project targeting homelessness called Home Again, and has committed to lending $500,000 to a housing loan fund to help get people who habitually live on the streets or in shelters into housing of their own.

Depending on the success of the first 12 to 18 months of Home Again, Ms. Yost said, the foundation anticipates providing another $3 million to keep the program operating for three to five years. Organizers hope that a good track record will prompt additional support from other sources.

The guidelines for Home Again were drawn from research and surveys undertaken last year through a $122,430 grant from the foundation. The agreed-upon approach draws heavily from successful programs for the homeless in other cities, which deliver mental health counseling, health care, substance abuse treatment, life skills training and other support services to the homeless, in addition to a roof over their heads.

The aim is for the formerly homeless participants in the project to become adept at managing their lives; find employment, if possible; improve their mental and physical health; and thus be able to support themselves. As they leave Home Again, new participants fill their slots in the program, the door revolving until all in need are served.

Home Again pulls together the resources of Community Healthlink, Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance, Dismas House, Henry Lee Willis Community Center, Jeremiah’s Inn, and South Middlesex Opportunity Council’s People in Peril Shelter in Worcester. Brook Doyle, vice president of homeless and detoxification services for Community Healthlink will serve as project director.

The Home Again project is well-suited to achieve the goals of the Massachusetts Commission to End Homelessness, according to Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray. “Targeting the chronically homeless and ensuring they have access to support services is a proven approach to reduce homelessness,” he said.

City Manager Michael V. O’Brien said the program also helps achieve the aims of the City Manager’s Task Force and its three-year plan to end homelessness in Worcester, which was issued last November.

For the project, Home Again uses the federal definition of chronic homelessness: “An unaccompanied adult who is 18 or older with a disabling condition and who has either been homeless continuously for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years.”

In addition to the 20 chronically homeless people receiving assistance at any one time, the program also will target 10 people who are homeless and considered on the verge of becoming chronically homeless.

Providing readily available services such as health care and other support is the most effective way to help people overcome homelessness, according to a man with considerable experience in the field.

Until last November, Ed, who was interviewed earlier this week at Community Healthlink’s Homeless Outreach and Advocacy Project, would have fallen into the chronically homeless category. Now 50, he has been homeless at various times since he was 22: the first time because he was thrown out of the apartment he shared with a girlfriend, and most recently for a 2-1/2-year stretch in which he lost his job as a grocery store clerk and figured the little money he had left was better spent on drugs and alcohol than on rent. In addition his addictions, he has been diagnosed with mental illness and suffers from hepatitis C.

He recalls that last fall he kept feeling “a pain in the back of my head like you wouldn’t believe.” It was similar to the headaches he would get from a booze or dope hangover, Ed says, but he knew he was in trouble because the shooting pain was coming even when he didn’t have the money to pay for a fix.

He started making the rounds of programs and agencies, but said he kept getting referred to another program or agency. He finally ended up at the HOAP program on Jaques Avenue.

With the exception of permanent housing, HOAP provides clients access to the kinds of support services that will be offered through Home Again. Sober ever since, the program made all the difference in the world to Ed.

“It’s like one-stop shopping,” he said. “They put me into detox. … I couldn’t fill out forms or applications because I couldn’t see, so they gave me a voucher and sent me to LensCrafters. … I’ve seen doctors and get counseling all the time.”

“I actually know what I’m doing now.”