It’s been less than two months since we spoke (“Able-Bodied in the Coverage Gap,” June 17), but Linda Perry is changed. When we meet at Dunkin’ Donuts in Jacksonville Beach, her eyes are clear and unflinching; at times she gives a genuine smile, even cracks a joke. The reason for her transformation is no mystery: Linda Perry is no longer homeless. Thanks to local nonprofit Ability Housing of Northeast Florida, after six long years, the 60-year-old has recently moved into a home of her own.
She swells with pride when she says, “I like to be able to say, ‘I’m going home.’ At work, ‘I’m going home, I’m not going to the car.’”
She recalls spending the first night in her new home in awe; overwhelmed, she went outside and just sat, trying to make sense of her new reality. Her voice cracks when she talks about the “angels” that saved her from the streets.
As it often does, breaking the cycle of homelessness has initiated a chain reaction of positive changes for Perry. Her blood pressure, once so high she could have easily had a stroke, is normal; her blood sugar is under control, too. And now that every day of her life isn’t a struggle to figure out where to eat, sleep, bathe, park her car for the night — all the little things that most of us take for granted — she’s thinking about the future.
“You see people really blossom [when they’re no longer homeless],” says Ability Housing Operations Director Michael Cochran.
Cochran, who himself was homeless many years ago, says that many people harbor the misconception that the homeless don’t want to work. Some are held back by disabilities, others by addictions, still others by circumstance. Do these facts make them less deserving of a helping hand, of compassion?
On Aug. 10, Folio Weekly attended the grand opening of Ability Housing’s Village on Wiley, a 43-unit development of one-bedroom apartments “designed to provide supportive housing for Jacksonville’s most vulnerable population, including persons who are high utilizers of crisis services and those experiencing chronic homelessness.”
The mood was festive and lively but, beneath the jubilation, there was a sense of disbelief, of people who are conditioned to expect the worst trying to come to grips with a positive, and lasting, change. Like all Ability Housing communities, Village on Wiley is a permanent solution. Each resident signs an annual contract that is essentially the same as any residential lease; provided they comply with the terms, which for those with a source of income includes paying 30 percent of their income in rent, they can renew as many times as they want.
Residents of Village on Wiley were selected based on criteria that assessed their risk of mortality if they remained homeless. “This is a very specific project that we’ve been working on for three years … to serve those that are most in need in our community of housing, not just housing, but also individuals in our community who use the most resources,” says Cochran.
With a forgivable loan of nearly $6 million from Florida Housing Finance Corporation, Ability Housing is participating in a pilot program, “The Solution That Saves,” which “will measure the quality of life and health impacts on pilot participants as well as the cost impacts on publicly funded systems of care, such as hospitals, shelters and jails.”
This is the first study of its kind in Florida; similar studies in other states have shown that it actually costs taxpayers less to house and care for this population on an ongoing basis than it does to leave them on the streets, where they rely on the emergency room, charities and social service providers and, simultaneously, run the risk of being arrested for minor infractions associated with their situation, such as trespassing.
David Alexander is one of the first to move into Village on Wiley. The 50-year-old former Marine, who has the physicality of a much younger man, is nervous and uncomfortable talking about his alcoholism, the abuse that began at his mother’s knee, the heartbreak of his marriage and the years he spent “jumping the rails” and scratching out a life on the streets of Jacksonville. Overcome, at one point he weeps briefly, quietly.
“It comes to be the norm. It came to be the norm for me to sleep in, on concrete, on cardboard. It came to be the norm to me to not have somewhere to live. It just came to be a way of life,” he says.
He says that he can’t quite believe that tomorrow he’ll wake up in a bed that is his. He’s spent much of his adult life cycling on and off the streets, where he has been attacked and stabbed in separate, unprovoked incidents.
“There’s times that I’ve been very vulnerable,” he says.
At the end of a two-year period, Ability Housing plans to use the results of its study to advocate and lobby for funding and other help for the homeless. It’s a savvy move that takes into consideration the reality that politicians are often more motivated by dollars and cents than ethics and sense. Feelings about funding social services tend to be divisive and passionate, but without a means of getting people housed where they can access social services and medical care, chronic homelessness will continue. And, either way, taxpayers will foot the bill.
Cochran estimates that last year, the organization provided housing for 500 people in Northeast Florida, 100 of whom were children. They have identified an additional 327 chronically homeless individuals in Northeast Florida.
“The biggest struggle is the immense need. We constantly get calls of families with children, a single mom with three or four children, not a lot of income, just needing a place to live … there’s just so few places that are available,” says Cochran.
Changing Homelessness (formerly The Emergency Services & Homeless Coalition of Northeast Florida), a coalition of local organizations, has established goals to end homelessness locally. Cochran says that they may end veterans’ homelessness locally by the end of 2015. Their hope is that by 2016, they will also have ended chronic homelessness.
“Would I want to do it again?” asks Alexander. “No. There’s a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, a lot of misery … I wouldn’t want to be homeless again, I really wouldn’t,” he says.