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‘Housing First’ program aims to end homelessness – and in Buffalo, it’s almost there

Buffalo – one of the poorest cities in the country – is close to ending chronic homelessness, according to the top administrator for the Homeless Alliance of Western New York.

Here’s what is needed: permanent housing for about two dozen adults.

One-bedroom or studio apartments would be fine. Standards aren’t as rigid as for Section 8 housing, but the places have to be clean and safe.

A government program pays the rent at “affordable housing” rates, and the tenants come with a caseworker who helps smooth any bumps on both sides.

Tenants get help with rent, at fair market value, probably around $600.

There are 25 chronically homeless people still in need of permanent housing, down from more than 400 people about four years ago, said Dale Zuchlewski, the top administrator of the Homeless Alliance.

These people meet a federal definition for the hard-core homeless. They have been on the streets for a year or more, or they’ve been in and out of homelessness regularly over the past three years, and all have some form of disability, whether it be mental health issue, a physical limitation, chronic illness, an addiction or a combination of any of those.

They are looking for landlords like Glenn Kaifas and Nicolette Simmons, who will give them a home and, with it, a chance.

It is part of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing First program, whose goal is to end chronic homelessness in the United States by 2017.

This doesn’t mean there will be no more homeless people in the community. People will continue to be evicted, to run away from home, lose their jobs, or fall into addiction or alcoholism. Places like the Buffalo City Mission and rapid rehousing services will continue to help them get back on track with job training and other services. But when homelessness is more permanent than sporadic, survival takes precedence. If those individuals are going to make it, housing needs to come first.

And as 2015 winds down, Zuchlewski says that Buffalo is almost there.

“I would be thrilled if we could do it,” he said. “We are so close. We are so close.”

Landlords matter

The program works thanks to dozens of landlords like Kaifas. He has four tenants under the program so far. And he said he wouldn’t mind more when he gets vacancies. Kaifas learned about the HUD program in the fall after he purchased for renovation a rundown 12-unit apartment building on the West Side.

“Most of my experience hasn’t been with this demographic,” Kaifas said.

He has another business renovating houses that go for $1,000 to $1,500 a month, but he saw potential in the West Avenue project.

He was impressed by the idea of ending homelessness, he said, but had one big concern.

“Where are they going to be a year from now? I just didn’t want them to be cut loose,” Kaifas said. “I wanted to know: Is there a plan in place? And there is. I jumped in with both feet.”

So far, so good, he said. He has even hired one of his formerly homeless tenants to work for him.

“It’s such a big game changer for them, to have shelter, someplace to lay their heads, something that they want to hold onto,” he said.

The agency he’s working with, the Evergreen Foundation, is “extremely hands-on” with its clients, he added.

“That allows me to do more of these type of rentals,” he said.

The rent is fair for both sides, he said, which allows him to keep his property safe and clean. He is upgrading the electrical and heating in the West Avenue building and putting in more security features.

“They are not just getting a roof. They are getting a nice place,” he said.

Caseworker checks

Nicolette Simmons, property manager at the Shoreline Apartments complex, also is sold on the housing program. She has 14 Housing First tenants, ages 25 to 64.

“To be honest, as a landlord it’s the safest way to go,” Simmons said. “You have a foundation paying the rent directly to you. You have a (caseworker) who checks in every week. It takes a lot of the stress off.”

Still, she understands why some landlords might be hesitant.

“You might think this is someone who doesn’t know what it takes to survive – but that’s not the case,” she said. “Everybody seems to appreciate living in a home with walls and a roof.”

She said the stability has helped the tenants in the program in their recoveries, and about half of them are working.

“Everybody falls sometime in their life. Some people just don’t have that safety net,” she said. “A lot of people feel there’s nobody who cares.”

But, she said, “You’d be surprised how much people can change.”

Studies have shown that getting homeless people into housing without preconditions of sobriety, counseling or other treatments helps them make those changes faster and more economically.

Even HUD admits that the cost-savings are “counterintuitive,” but they nevertheless are significant. One study in Los Angeles saw a 79 percent reduction in public costs when homeless people were provided with housing.

This turns on its head the previous “treatment-first” model that filtered the homeless into high-cost programs, shelters and counseling to make them “housing ready.” Others landed in emergency rooms, mental health beds or jail.

People with a stable living situation simply tend to take better care of themselves.

“It gets people out of constant crisis mode,” Zuchlewski said. “Programs that think you have to ‘fix’ somebody in order for them to be housed are setting them up for failure.”

Formerly homeless

Chris Baxter, 22, knows how that works. He wound up homeless at age 18 due to “a mixture of drugs and family issues,” he said.

He was homeless for nearly five years before getting an apartment through the Matt Urban Hope Center in October.

Now, he said, he is doing much better.

“It’s going good,” he said. “I’ve got a job, and I’m getting situated.

“It’s given me time to succeed rather than falling behind on the street. On the streets, you don’t have that safe feeling.”

Instead, he focused on drugs and survival. But in the summer, he was evaluated by outreach workers from the Matt Urban Hope Center, and in October he moved into his own.

He stopped using drugs, he’s found a job about 10 minutes away, and he’s planning to go to school next year.

“I’m setting goals for myself now,” Baxter said.

Even more satisfying is getting reacquainted with his family.

“My siblings who are old enough come by and visit. My mom is starting to talk to me,” Baxter said. “They’re starting to trust me again.”

85 percent success

Baxter is among the 85 percent who succeed. That’s the success rate members of the Housing Alliance have seen when placing the chronically homeless, with close to 400 people participating.

What it boils down to is that nobody is more “housing ready” than someone who doesn’t have a home, said Jason Flores, outreach supervisor at Matt Urban.

The last couple of dozen people identified for the program are not left out because they are difficult, he said. In fact, HUD guidelines call for placing the “most vulnerable” people first.

To be eligible for the housing program, Flores said, people are ranked from 1 to 25 on a “vulnerability index.”

“The higher the index number, the closer you are to death,” Flores said matter-of-factly.

“They are like everybody else,” Flores said of those in the program. “They are your brothers and sisters and high school classmates. We have an artist, one was a chef, one is a former nurse.”

There are no sex offenders or arsonists, Flores said.

“The biggest misconception is that you are homeless because you are a ‘bad person,’ ” said Sarah Gorry, homeless outreach case manager at Matt Urban. “ ‘Bad’ because you lost your job and got thrown out of your apartment. There are a lot of reasons people become homeless, and the longer they are homeless, the more barriers there are to getting a home.”

Like not being clean, not having an address or birth certificate, or losing your feet to frostbite.

Few things are as unhealthy as homelessness. People without shelter fall prey to disease and to criminals, and, with no other refuge from despair, they can easily drift deeper into substance abuse and alcoholism.

“It perpetuates itself,” Gorry said. “Nobody fakes chronic homelessness.”

Matt Urban had a memorial service this week for clients who died in 2015, including one man who had a heart attack two weeks before he was to move into his own place. He was 54. Flores recalls men in their 40s who died of conditions associated with old age, including one man who died in Flores’ arms.

As Zuchlewski said, “You can do all the street outreach you want, but people still need a home.”

Landlords interested in learning more about ending chronic homelessness can call the Homeless Alliance at 853-1101 or go online at email: