This post was originally written for Poverty Insights by Mattie Lord of UMOM New Day Centers. Mattie is also a Project Coordinator for Project H3: Home, Health, Hope; of which HOM, Inc. is a proud partner.
While sitting at a stop sign, minding my own business, two men drove by and flipped me off. I have no idea why – I did nothing to them. Perhaps they passed judgment based on my appearance, my car, or perhaps my “Life is good” bumper sticker. It reminded me of how often people experiencing homelessness are judged and misjudged – how frequently others make assumptions and draw conclusions without knowing anything about them. We expect it from people who just don’t understand the issues or the population, but it is surprisingly common even within the human services arena. Too often, our most vulnerable – those most in need of help – are overlooked or discounted by homeless service providers.
Meet Mark. Mark is a sixty-one year old man who lived on the streets for the past thirty years, half of his life. He has been well-known to service providers, outreach teams, and law enforcement in Phoenix, Arizona for his drunken and belligerent behavior. For years, he has been judged and dismissed as “service resistant,” someone who couldn’t be helped. When Project H3: Home, Health, Hope (a local initiative of the 100,000 Homes Campaign) first engaged Mark, it seemed that he had given up on everything.
He presented himself as grumpy and mean, stopped bathing, and often did not bother using a restroom even when one was available (Mark smelled and looked pretty bad). He drank so much that he could not walk unassisted. Last July, Mark watched his brother die on the streets, on a park bench in the arts district. Like his brother, he served in the armed forces and has veteran status. Unfortunately, due to many years of negative experiences with the Veterans Administration (VA), he has been strongly opposed to treatment and services through the VA. In fact, the original engagement strategy of the Project H3 navigation team was to chant “F the VA” with him.
No doubt, Mark was a classic example of a chronically homeless individual. He fit the stereotype of a homeless male with a shopping cart – the one most people pretend is invisible and assume is beyond assistance. Yet we, as a community, made a conscious decision to not only see him, but to save him.
We assessed his many needs and cobbled together a plan to package the services needed to make Mark successful in permanent housing. Mark wasn’t interested in shelter or water or a sandwich, but an apartment was appealing.
We knew the VA was a key player, so we convinced the VA to case manage Mark on the park bench during the day. That was amazing from a systems perspective. Since then, the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) navigation team and the VA have worked tirelessly with Mark.
As of today, he has been voluntarily sober for more than a month, is showering on his own (an indication of self-care), and has been going to the VA for various treatments. He voluntarily rides public transportation to get to the VA for appointments. Astounding.
Mark is temporarily staying in a transitional housing project staffed by previously homeless veterans, where he has the support of many peers who understand the challenges of being a veteran and experiencing street homelessness. Health Care for the Homeless has established quite a rapport with Mark and helped stabilize him medically and convince him that everyone is sincere in wanting to help.
With all of this support and a true collaborative community effort, Mark reports that for the first time in twenty years, he actually feels like people care about him. He has hope and is genuinely grateful for the opportunity to have a place of his own.
He received a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs and Supportive Housing voucher last week, so the team took him apartment shopping. Early in his engagement, he indicated he would like an apartment in town near his “drinking buddies.” Now, he has decided that he would prefer an apartment closer to the VA so that he can better take care of himself. What a remarkable choice.
Moving in, Moving on
We moved Mark in today. He was surrounded by people who care about him and worked hard to overcome the myriad barriers that stood in the way. After he was handed the keys, he reached out for Robin, his VA case manager. Together, they unlocked the door to his permanent home.
Oh, and Mark is a baseball fan – he loves the Arizona Diamondbacks. The PATH team is taking him to a game on Friday to celebrate his housewarming. It’s time he began enjoying his new life.
Mark’s story is incredible. It is one of compassion, collaboration, and transformation. We took the time to get to know Mark. We were honest about his challenges, critically assessed his needs, and implemented a plan to meet those needs.
We invested time, bent rules, and made the systems work for Mark. Our community provided Mark the opportunity to save himself. If we are smart and strategic, we can end homelessness, one person at a time.