The 50 luckiest street dwellers

July 26, 2011 5:57:17 PM PDT
Syretha Stokley spends her days in the waiting room of Newark's Penn Station, clutching a backpack stretched at the seams with her meager belongings, wearing several mismatched layers in the summer heat. Diagnosed as bi-polar and on medication, she cycles between shelters and spending nights on a bench in a nearby subway station. She passes most of her days in a corner of the train station where the chronically homeless congregate.

"It's hard to be out here, it would make a big difference having a place," Stokley said. "Somewhere to go, somewhere to shower, somewhere to take a bath, somewhere to get up in the morning and leave your belongings - it would make a difference."

Stokley is among the more than 700 homeless people who Newark city officials say seek shelter on the streets or in emergency rooms on any given night.

Now, Newark is among a handful of cities experimenting with a program that targets small, core groups of the most vulnerable and chronically homeless, providing them first with housing and then comprehensive services.

The Newark 50 Project has pledged to house 50 of the most vulnerable among the homeless population by December 2012. It's part of a wider national effort called the 100,000 Homes campaign, which has set a goal of finding homes for 100,000 of the most vulnerable among America's homeless population by July 2013.

The program is being tried in cities across America, where local officials can scale it to whatever size a city can realistically afford.

"We don't intend to stop at 50," said Janel Winter of the New Jersey office of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which is helping Newark implement the program. ""We don't intend to stop until we've housed everyone in Newark who needs a home."

Targeting the most vulnerable among the chronically homeless makes economic sense, according to Winter, who says Newark's program aims to house about half the population who qualified as chronically homeless in an annual homeless survey, and found to be suffering from serious medical conditions or mental health issues.

The Newark 50 Project is one of the first components of a 10-year-plan to end homelessness in Essex County, Winter said.

"It makes a lot of sense when you think about it," she said.

"It's easier for someone to address all their other issues if they have a safe, stable place to lay their head and to call their own."

Advocates say the program seeks to first stabilize people's lives by getting them immediately into housing and then helping them remain there, by enlisting the help of nonprofits, government agencies, volunteers and even private donors to address the myriad issues they may face.

The concept is based in large part on the work of two medical researchers who studied the chronically homeless in Boston, Stephen Hwang and Jim O'Connell.

O'Connell, the president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program and an instructor at Harvard University's medical school, said he was shocked to discover during his research that a group of 119 of Boston's most hardcore, chronically homeless had accounted for more than 18,300 emergency room visits during a five-year period. He felt there had to be a more cost-effective, humane way of helping that particular group.

"We started to understand that urban, hardcore street populations are really probably the most vulnerable population we know in America and probably have the highest crude mortality rates, despite the fact that they use our health care services probably more than any other group we know," O'Connell said.

They were also a group that didn't qualify for housing - and "a population that didn't count," O'Connell said.

Homeless advocacy groups like the New York City-based Common Ground and others used the research to develop a "housing-first" approach to combating homelessness, developing a "vulnerability index" - which is being used in Newark to assess who the most vulnerable among the homeless are - according to O'Connell.

In Newark, a team of volunteers did a city-wide survey of the homeless in June. They identified about 90 of the hardcore, chronically homeless, and the Newark 50 Program will start by trying to house about half of them. Once a person is housed, nonprofit groups, private donors, volunteers and state-funded programs are mobilized to provide everything from mental health services to household furniture and goods.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker said the first program participant, a woman who had been homeless for five years, had been placed in an apartment on Tuesday. He called it an important first step.

"I'm excited about all 50 steps, and then I'm excited about doing the 50 again and again," Booker said. "We started out with audacity to end homelessness in 10 years, today I think we're showing that this is not just a distant dream, this is a destiny."