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Which Comes First—a Home or a Job?

The mother and her teenage daughter were faced with a decision: make the car payment or pay the rent.

At least by paying for the car, they figured, they would still have transportation, and a place to stay at night. It’s the kind of decision that’s made nearly every day in Clarke County, especially in a slow economy. On any given night, according to county numbers and social workers, between 350 and 1,000 men, women and parents with children don’t have a reliable place they can call home.

But Paul Lazzari believes he’s found the solution. Lazzari, director of The Stable Foundation, says the nonprofit’s three-pronged approach addresses not just the issue of homelessness, but also the underlying causes that get people or families into that situation. Using a model called “Housing First,” the foundation works with people on the verge of being evicted to help them keep their homes, with the idea that once you lose a permanent place to live, going to work or school—or even eating a meal—becomes increasingly difficult.

“We’re changing the focus to prevention, working with families with an eviction notice,” said Lazzari. “With as little as $1,000 or $1,500, a lot of these families can be self-sufficient.”

The issue of homelessness is complex. Erin Barger, executive director of Action Ministries and chair of the Northeast Georgia Homeless and Poverty Coalition, said she tries to look at the issue form the standpoint of a philanthropist who wants to tackle the problem with as many resources as possible.

“Providing shelter is very important,” she said, “but I think some people are interested in addressing the bigger picture, trying to move them out of homelessness. That needs to happen in a really comprehensive way.” With Action Ministries’ Our Daily Bread program, which provides two meals a day for anyone short on food and cash, “I see people who are homeless and experience poverty every day, and I see being homeless is a part-time job,” she said. “So, to expect someone who doesn’t know where they’re sleeping at night to go out and find a job is not a realistic expectation.”

From 2011 to 2012, according to Athens-Clarke County statistics, the number of homeless individuals—including children—without a reliable place to live has decreased, from 407 to 361. And when you take into account two shelters—Walk on Water and Bigger Vision—that together housed nearly 100 people on any given night but have not been open this year, 2012’s lower number is even more significant, said Evan Mills, community development specialist with ACC’s Human and Economic Development office. The total number of individuals without a place to stay—in a shelter or otherwise—remained the same, while the overall number of people in emergency and transitional shelters decreased, according to the county’s annual homeless count.

But Barger noted a shift in the homeless trend in the past year, especially due to the loss of the two shelters. “We have fewer people who are homeless, but out of the people who are homeless, fewer of them have a place to stay because some of the emergency shelters have closed in the past year,” she said. “So, that has created a situation in that people who are homeless do not have a habitable place to rest their heads at night.”

Rob Shapiro mixes up scrambled eggs at Action Ministries’ Our Daily Bread kitchen. Shapiro is a member of Athens Church of Christ, which provides volunteers and food for the Friday morning breakfasts.

The Housing First model is in place around the country, and the ACC government receives about $690,000 a year in federal grants to implement the idea, primarily through a program run by Advantage Behavioral Health Services. The grants pay basic utilities and subsidize rent for an apartment, based on the displaced family’s income. A partnering social service agency, such as Advantage or The Stable Foundation, provides a case worker to help the family set up a plan to get back on track, financially and otherwise.

But what makes The Stable Foundation different is the involvement of community in its mission. Hundreds of volunteers make phone calls or drop by to visit the families in the program, simply checking up on them, getting to know them and making sure the families know they are valued members of our community.

“When people face homelessness conditions, they become untethered. If one of those pieces isn’t there, change happens really quick,” said Lazzari, noting that once you’re evicted, it’s more likely you’ll be late to work or even lose your job because you’ve lost that foundation. “We saw the Housing First model and said, ‘We can bring more to this.'”

Kerri Steele, program director at the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, smiles knowingly when asked about the Housing First model. At AAHS, the mothers and their children who are housed there follow a strict set of rules and a personalized action plan to get back to independent living. Sometimes it’s a matter of refocusing monetary priorities—no buying designer jeans, for example—while other times, a resident needs job training or child care in order to get back on her feet.

But every situation is as varied as the possible solutions, Steele said. Which is why the goal of Housing First, while important, isn’t the total solution, she cautions. “I tend to find that no movements in one direction work,” she said. “Housing First seems to be a great idea for a good amount of people. So, I think we’ll push ahead with this and have some successes—and some failures—and then we’ll find a model that suits both.”

One thing to note about shelters in the Athens area is that each one caters to a specific demographic. The Healing Place is a shelter only for men, while AAHS only shelters women and children. Which is why Lazzari has put so much faith in The Stable Foundation’s plan to keep people in their own homes, followed up with counseling and community support: it’s a less expensive solution. Since 2008, the foundation has helped 25 families and 80 individuals retain roofs over their heads, at an average cost of $10.50 per night. Lazzari noted the $7.9 million, earmarked to a coalition of local homeless groups to build a “one-stop shop” for homeless services, that came from the University of Georgia in exchange for the former U.S. Navy Supply Corps School campus, which the university is using for a new health sciences campus. For a fraction of that cost, he said, The Stable Foundation could find housing in the community for 100 families a year and keep money flowing into the existing local economy, rather than using it to build another building.

A typical family in The Stable Foundation’s program transitions out of the subsidized housing after six months. “For $700,000, you can pay rent for 100 families—it’s about $7,000 a year [per family], fully subsidized,” he said, noting the even higher cost of incarceration or hospital stays as a result of living on the streets.

Lazzari said the foundation is putting together a cost-benefit analysis of the amount individuals without a consistent home cost the local government in terms of health care, emergency services and incarceration. Within the next few months, he plans to present the results of the study to the Mayor and Commission, along with his foundation’s proposed solution. Ideally, he said, the county would be on board with dedicating resources to keeping families—and an estimated 330 children—in permanent homes rather than looking for room in shelters.

“You still have people who need intervention, but there’s proactive solutions that can solve this problem today,” he said. “We’d like to fix it and not be here in four years.”