Salem puts roof over chronically homeless, then adds care

Tommy Green, 52, was homeless in Salem for 21 years before getting an apartment through the homeless rental assistance program. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Last winter, Tommy Green was trapped in a cycle.

Years of methamphetamine use and living on the streets had weakened his heart.

“Black mold got in my lungs from the tent I was living in,” he said. His lungs filled with fluid, and he had a heart attack.

After doctors at Salem Hospital stabilized him, they released him back to the streets. There, he swelled up again, had another heart attack and was soon back in the hospital for a second, then a third stay.

“I’m 52 years old and I shouldn’t even be sitting here. Statistics say I shouldn’t,” Green said.

If Green had had his own home, he could have been able to take his medications consistently, rested, recovered, and avoided future trips to the emergency room.

He could have received heart surgery to fix his ongoing problems, but he said doctors wouldn’t operate because he wouldn’t have been able to recover while homeless.

The emergency room trips cost tens of thousands of dollars each, Green said, and because he’s insured through Oregon Health Plan, taxpayers footed the bill.

Paying for Green to have his own apartment at roughly $9,600 a year is cheaper for Oregon taxpayers than hospital visits.

That’s the philosophy behind Salem’s year-old homeless rental assistance program, a city-funded effort to get the homeless people with highest need into housing and help them stay there.

The hardest to house

Green is one of 121 people who enrolled in the program during its first year, and one of 71 who got an apartment or other housing. Of those, 69 have remained in their housing and in touch with their case workers.

The initial goal was to house 100 people during the first year and have 80 percent remain in housing and enrolled in services like mental health care and addiction treatment, said Kellie Battaglia, client services manager for Salem Housing Authority, which administers the program.

The city budgeted $1.4 million for the program, and private grants and contributions of about $100,000 have funded several staff positions.

The housing authority spent just under $700,000 in the first year, or about $10,000 per client, and has most of the rest earmarked to continue to pay rent for newly-housed people.

Mayor Chuck Bennett, who campaigned on addressing homelessness in Salem, said that’s money well spent.

“We view it as a very successful program compared to anything else we’ve seen going on,” he said. “These are people everyone has given up on. They live on the street in desperate conditions. They die young. We’re going to make sure they get the best care possible.”

Before he got an apartment, Green was what social workers call “chronically homeless” – someone who’s spent years living on the streets and typically has a drug or alcohol addiction, mental health issues and serious physical health conditions.

Most homeless people are not chronically homeless, said Jimmy Jones, director of the Arches homeless assistance program at Salem’s Community Resource Program. But chronically homeless people are what the public often thinks of, because they’re the people who tend to be most visible downtown.

Jones’ agency interviews homeless people seeking help, collects data and figures out how to best help them based on factors like how long they’ve been homeless and what other resources, such as a job or family, they have available.

Some of the people and families he sees need modest, one-time support. They may have been evicted and need help paying a deposit and first month’s rent for a new place, he said, or a few months of help paying bills.

A larger group need longer-term help with subsidizing rent for a year or two, but typically don’t have the many challenges that people like Green face.

But chronically homeless people need more than an apartment. They need a lot of one-on-one time with social workers who can help them find a primary doctor, make a crisis plan so they don’t disrupt neighbors when their mental illness symptoms flare up, and navigate the maze of programs like energy assistance, applying for Social Security and getting help with addiction.

 “You give them a million bucks, they won’t get housed,” said Pamala Garrick, grants coordinator for Salem the housing authority.

And for years, Oregon has directed the bulk of its homeless services funding toward helping people with lower needs who are easier to work with and more photogenic, Jones said.

As of March 1, Jones’ staff had evaluated 2,392 homeless people in Salem over an 18-month period. Thirty-five percent of them were chronically homeless, a far higher share than is typical in most West Coast cities.

Jones said nationally, communities using the same evaluation find about 15 percent of homeless people are chronically homeless.

“The ratios are all out of whack because we haven’t adequately turned our resources toward the higher population,” he said. “This is a failure of systems.”

Housing first

The homeless rental assistance program is trying to change that. Among the program’s core values is housing someone before trying to address their other problems.

Garrick said social service providers have been talking about housing first for years, and some cities, including Seattle, have made it a cornerstone of their homeless policy.

Salem has historically had few housing options for homeless people who were addicts.

“You had to get sober and get a job and stand on your head and whistle Dixie and then maybe you get housing,” Garrick said.

Green said he was kicked out of a local shelter the day after Christmas because his urinalysis came up positive for marijuana he’d smoked weeks ago. Marijuana is legal in Oregon and he’d told the shelter workers the test would be positive, but that didn’t matter.

Green’s brother, who was also homeless, talked him in to going to the rental assistance program around Thanksgiving last year, he said. He enrolled the following month.

Green wears his medium-length grey hair back in a pony tail and rides a bike around Salem, but he laughs thinking about how he looked at his first appointment.

“I was pulling a trailer behind a mountain bike, 15 coats on and I hadn’t showered in a week and a half,” he said.

His own apartment

Before he entered the program, Green’s only housing in 21 years had been prison.

Green has lived in Salem since he was a child, and graduated from McNary High School, he said. He started using meth at 16 and spent his life either on the streets or behind bars on a series of offenses related to his addiction: meth possession and parole violations.

His health eventually prompted him to stop using, he said. He quit cold turkey 17 months ago, and has completed his supervision following a 2015 release from prison. It’s the first time in his adult life he’s not under Department of Corrections supervision, he said.

When someone starts the rental assistance program, they’re assigned to a case manager who helps them look for housing and address their other needs. Most of the homeless people in the program are housed with private landlords who have been willing to take a chance, knowing their new tenants come with a guaranteed rent payment and a case worker to help mitigate any challenges.

“I don’t call the shots. I suggest shots,” said Green’s case manager, Christine Jeffries.

City funding, with some private donations, pays for rent, utilities and other expenses for the first year. After that, clients receive a federal housing voucher that will cover most or all of their rent for life, depending on their income.

Green got his apartment in February. When he first moved in, he couldn’t sleep in a bed. It was too alien to him after years on the streets. Even now, he’s put his bed by a window, which he leaves open at night because he has trouble falling asleep without the cold and noise of the street.

Outside, he’s planted a row of flowers in a small bed.

“That’s my pride and what I got now,” he said.

He teared up multiple times during his weekly meeting with Jeffries as she helped him set up energy assistance and checked about the status of his Social Security benefits.

“They gave me so much,” he said. “I don’t deserve it, I can tell you that.”

Twice a month, he serves breakfast as a volunteer at Cascade Gateway Park for homeless people, and he’s looking into training being trained as a peer support specialist, which would let him mentor other people who are trying to get off the streets.

“There are others out there that want to better their lives,” he said.

Troy Brynelson contributed reporting.

Got a tip? Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.