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Women in D.C. housing-first units concentrate on their futures

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By Julie Zauzmer

The Washington Post, November 15

For the first time in her tumultuous 22 years, Kortney Parkey has an apartment of her own.

Like anyone with a new home, Parkey is happy to give a visitor the grand tour. She shows off the ample closet space, the newly renovated kitchen and bathroom, the pretty patterned bedspread and the place mats on the table that match the blue doors.

But there’s so much more to this apartment that Parkey can’t point to. That here, at last, she is out from under the thumb of a crooked boss, a dishonest landlord, an abusive man. That she can shut her own door, an impossible luxury in the homeless shelters that have been her home more often than not for the past two years. That this place gives her a foothold to keep her job and improve her health.

And one more crucial thing: “I can sleep,” Parkey says. “I can sleep. Oh, my goodness, I can sleep.”

Each day on her street in the District’s Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast, Parkey is one of four formerly homeless women who get a quiet night of sleep in their own homes.

Janet Sharpe's new home in Washington. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)
This building is one of dozens across the city in which homeless people will move to permanent, private apartments, as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) mounts an aggressive campaign to end homelessness in the city.

More than 2,700 adults in the District live in these permanent supportive housing units. Bowser’s plan to end chronic homelessness by 2020 calls for almost a thousand more.

The city budget passed this year included funding to guarantee that 365 of those units will be created for single adults.

The philosophy, called “housing first,” has gained popularity across the country since the 1990s. Rather than put people in shelter beds while they try to conquer the causes of their homelessness — joblessness, mental illness, addiction — housing-first advocates instead offer homeless people a permanent place to live right away.

Advocates of housing-first say that people who don’t have to worry about finding shelter stand a far better chance of fixing their other problems. Studies have found that people in housing-first programs are much less likely to return to homelessness than those who receive other forms of help.

That’s the thinking of Open Arms Housing, which operates a 16-unit apartment building in Truxton Circle and opened the second building in October.


The apartments are paid for through a combination of local, federal and private funds. All the furnishings in the apartments are donated.

Janet Sharpe works on a list of “to-do" items in her new home in Washington. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)
Ultimately, housing-first advocates say that giving people homes is much cheaper than managing the costs that can accompany homelessness — emergency room visits, spells in jail and more. Utah has said that it went from spending $20,000 a year on every homeless person to $12,000 a year when it implemented a widespread housing-first plan.

Many permanent supportive housing units are tucked within otherwise market-rate apartment buildings, but Open Arms Housing offers on-site assistance from a social worker and several additional staff members who are always there to help residents.

The staff members also connect residents to outside services such as doctors and therapists. But no one who lives there is required to seek help in exchange for the apartment. That’s the tenant’s choice.

Each woman signs an apartment lease. She must pay 30 percent of her monthly income in rent — for almost all of the tenants, that income is from disability checks.

Open Arms Housing has found that the strategy works. Since the first location opened in 2009, 28 women have lived there, executive director Marilyn Kresky-Wolff said. Only one, who slipped back into substance abuse and then stopped paying her rent, has returned to homelessness, she said.

All the others who have left have moved in with relatives, gone to nursing homes or group homes, or become self-sufficient enough to live independently.

Janet Sharpe, 56, has seen firsthand the transformation that housing can bring to mentally ill women — most of all herself.

She moved into the first Open Arms Housing location about two years ago. When the Trinidad location opened, the staff asked her to move there, to serve as a resident assistant who can help the new tenants.

Sharpe said that after years of homelessness, she was able to overcome substance abuse once she had her own apartment, thanks to Open Arms.

Simply being in a new environment has been crucial. “I don’t do the things I used to do,” she said. “Coming home and locking my door, I don’t have nobody knocking at my door for nothing.”


Having her own place also lets Sharpe care for her 5-year-old grandson, which helps her daughter, who has sickle cell disease. When Sharpe stayed in an emergency shelter, she couldn’t have visitors. At Sharpe’s Open Arms Housing apartment, Zavier has spelled out his name in magnets on the refrigerator.

Sharpe watches out for the other three women at the new complex. One is deaf, so she needed special accommodations such as a flashing doorbell. One moved out of an abusive relative’s home and uses a wheelchair, Kresky-Wolff said. Sharpe helped calm her down when she at first threatened to move out because she disliked the hospital-style bed provided for her.

And then there’s Parkey. At 22, she is the youngest resident Open Arms Housing has served.

Not long ago, she was an ambitious kid growing up in eastern Tennessee, the kind of student who was acutely aware of the racism that seemed to stand in her way in her hometown and who took college classes online during high school while she dreamed of getting away.

She thought she had found her opportunity when she started at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. But in her junior year, mental illness overwhelmed her. She couldn’t take care of herself, so her diabetes spiraled out of control, she said.

She left college, then came to the District to stay with a college friend, and immediately fell in love with the city. She thought that with a little time to get well, she would return to college and everything would be okay.

Instead, she said, she wiped out almost all her savings when she put down a rent deposit at a house that turned out to be a scam. She moved in with a friend of a friend, where she was terrified by her new roommate’s abusive boyfriend.

When the man attacked his girlfriend so violently that the woman ended up in the hospital, Parkey said, she left for good.

“I didn’t really know what to do at this point. It was really awful,” she said. “I ended up leaving and I didn’t know where I was going.”

That was the first time she went to a homeless shelter. She was 20.


She said she was overwhelmed to meet much older women, some of them arguing with each other or with voices only they could hear, some crying loudly in their shared dormitory through the night.

“My story’s a lot nicer than some of the other ladies’ stories,” Parkey said. “I just thank God I haven’t seen what they’ve seen.”

Before getting her apartment, she sometimes worked two or three jobs at once, but she still wasn’t able to save enough to pay a security deposit on an apartment.

The D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, which makes almost all the referrals that lead to spots at Open Arms Housing, recommended Parkey when the facility in Trinidad opened. She was blown away by every little detail, from the matching bath mat and shower curtain to the blueberry-pie-scented candle on the kitchen counter, when she opened the door to the fully furnished apartment in late October.

Although permanent supportive housing truly means permanent for many people, Parkey said she is planning for the day that she can move out and leave the apartment to someone who needs it even more.

This home will help her achieve her goals, she said.

Shelter rules hindered her, Parkey said. Required to get to the shelter by a certain time each night, she couldn’t take jobs with late hours. In her current job, she works from 3 to 11 p.m. at the front desk of a hotel. And without the stability of a home, it was difficult to make it to doctor appointments.

Now she is saving money and trying to be healthy. She wants to return to college, where she would be in her senior year.

She chose to study psychology. Now, her desired career path — as a researcher trying to find the best outcomes for people with mental illness — feels in­cred­ibly personal.

“I want to be able to help someone with their problems,” she said. “Me going through what I’ve been through — what if I can find a way to stop someone from going through that?”

 

Original article available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/women-in-dc-housing-first-units-concentrate-on-their-futures/2015/11/15/4d960d86-84d1-11e5-8ba6-cec48b74b2a7_story.html?postshare=1891447639282575&tid=ss_tw