Home Stand

An innovative program could end chronic homelessness in Cleveland by 2020 — with the community's help.

Joel Williams almost never lets go of his keys. He's holding them tight, worrying the worn lanyard. Williams is a large man, 350 pounds, with a salt-and-pepper beard and shock of gray in his Afro. His hands are thick and muscular, the product of a lost career baking bread. He sits at a tiny kitchen table and talks about the years he spent homeless.

He remembers wandering the streets, occasionally sleeping in his mother's car in her driveway. He spent a year living at Cleveland's notorious men's shelter, 2100 Lakeside. His narrative spirals, returning to key themes, people and places: dropping out of high school to apprentice as a baker, the house he grew up in, his sisters, his mother, the drugs and alcohol, the hallucinations that come with schizophrenia, and the distances he has covered on foot, outracing his demons. 

"At times it was like I was in a war zone," he tells me, "but it was all in my head. Terrifying. Terrifying."

We're inside his compact, one-bedroom apartment at 1850 Superior Ave. Before he moved in, Williams was what social service types describe as "chronically homeless." He went through repeated bouts of homelessness and couldn't do things the rest of society takes for granted: show up to work sober, pay the rent, stay healthy.

For a very long time, if you were chronically homeless in Greater Cleveland, as in many cities, you probably remained that way. You might cycle through shelters — or get transitional housing but lose it — because of an underlying mental illness, an addiction or both. Without meaning to, you became a huge burden on your community, occupying a bed in a shelter, relying on soup kitchens for your meals and occasionally landing in jail or the hospital.

In the past, sobriety was usually a prerequisite for moving from a homeless shelter to any housing provided by a social service agency. The rationale was that the prospect of housing would give the homeless incentive to complete a recovery program or stay on medication. Mental illness being what it is, that approach hasn't always worked.

Williams doesn't take medication for his mental illness. He doesn't want to. He still occasionally drinks. But since 2007, he's had a home. More than 500 former chronically homeless people in Cuyahoga County can say the same thing.

Local leaders say they're about halfway to ending chronic homelessness in Cuyahoga County. They think they can do it by 2020.

Take a moment to let that sink in. People sleeping in doorways or under bridges — gone. That guy wandering down Euclid Avenue with his belongings in 18 plastic bags — he has a place to put his stuff and a place to sleep. The best part? It costs less than we're currently spending to treat the problem of homelessness.

This is the work of a remarkable local collaboration called Housing First, which provides housing without stipulations or prerequisites. You don't have to be sober, employed or even employable. You just have to be chronically homeless.

Housing First gives you a home and charges you rent equal to a third of your income (in most cases, that's a federal disability check). It offers services that might be useful — mental health care, life skills instruction, job training or addiction recovery. There's no requirement to use those services. If you're homeless and you come to Housing First, they don't require you to fix your life. They just make it possible. They give you a home, dignity and, eventually, the recognition that your problems might have solutions. 

To some people, that all sounds like something for nothing. I put that criticism to Jenny Eppich, who works for Enterprise Community Partners and is a lead convener in the Housing First network. We meet at South Pointe Commons, a housing complex on West 25th Street near MetroHealth Medical Center.

From the outside, it looks like a nice condo development, complete with a great falafel restaurant on the ground floor. Inside, the formerly homeless now live in 78 apartments. Eppich tells me the complex costs about $14,000 per unit to run annually. That breaks down to a daily cost of $39.

That sounds expensive, but it actually saves money.

"We target the highest-need people," she says. "These folks are frequent fliers of emergency rooms, hospitals, EMS calls, jails, courts and psychiatric hospitals."

According to national studies, these "frequent fliers" can cost taxpayers about $30,000 every year for the services they rely on and the beds they sleep in. In other words, we're already paying a ton of money for services that don't end homelessness. Housing First's approach, called permanent supportive housing, can save thousands, help people get their lives back together and make our communities feel and look more like the places we want them to be.

In 2010, Housing First research put the number of homeless people in Cuyahoga County at 5,600. Most are temporarily homeless, likely having a one-time experience and not dealing with addiction or mental illness. Typically, they'll find help and make their way back to a home.

Imagine the recession put you out of a job. Then, you lost your house and landed in a homeless shelter for a couple of weeks. Thanks to Housing First, you're a lot less likely to share the shelter with a chronically homeless drug user with schizophrenia.

Housing First, launched in 2001, now has 576 units of permanent supportive housing occupied or under construction in nine apartment buildings throughout Cleveland, from 1850 Superior to Midtown to Slavic Village. Of the roughly 500 formerly homeless people who have landed in a Housing First apartment, 2 percent have returned to the streets.

It's a big change. Greater Cleveland has seen a 62-percent reduction in chronically homeless people, which has allowed the city and county to close their downtown emergency shelter for disabled men.

Permanent, supportive, no-strings-attached housing is an increasingly popular model. Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and more than 20 other American cities are using it. In Finland and Ireland, it's nearly put an end to sleeping on the streets.

Getting this far has taken intense collaboration. Enterprise puts together the capital development deals. Housing agencies such as the Cleveland Housing Network and Eden Inc. develop and manage the buildings. Each is staffed with caseworkers from agencies such as the VA Medical Center, the AIDS Taskforce and Mental Health Services, a county-funded nonprofit.

The coalition needs another 695 units to reach its goal of ending chronic homelessness. Most will be for single adults, but 50 will be built for families with children. To do that, Housing First needs money and a lot of community support. It needs future neighbors to welcome the projects, which can certainly be a tough sell.

Jay Szabo lives two doors from the newest Housing First building, Greenbridge Commons on Euclid Avenue in Midtown. He was concerned when he first learned of the project.

"No one had informed any of us in the neighborhood until it felt like a done deal," Szabo says. But Housing First listened to the neighbors' concerns and invited them to visit its other facilities. "We were very impressed," Szabo says.

"You'd hardly know there are more than 70 people living there. There's no loitering, no hanging out. They've been great neighbors, and there's just this really attractive building where there used to be an empty parking lot."

Back at 1850 Superior, Joel Williams finally puts down his keys. He's talking about his old baking job, pantomiming how to braid bread as if the dough is on the table in front of us. His hands move with the quickness that only muscle memory can produce.

When I leave, Williams bids me goodbye and closes his door. I walk downstairs with Jennifer Swindell, who manages programming in the building. I mention Williams' passion and excitement about baking. I ask Swindell, who's known him for five years, if he'll ever go back to work.

"I think he will," she says. "Joel is great. He works toward his goals in his own time. I've seen him identify healthy relationships and set boundaries with people."

It's hard for some residents to break old habits. Williams still spends time with drinking buddies. But he has a place to call home. He doesn't have to sleep in a shelter, hospital or jail.

Despite the demons and hallucinations Williams faced even while we visited, Swindell is optimistic about his future.

"Having a place to stay is so important for moving forward," she says. "This is the longest he's stayed anywhere in his adult life."

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