Homelessness organizations look to house 100,000 by July

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 12, 2014 

While others slept comfortably in their beds last week, Anthony Reece wandered the streets to stay warm.

He's been homeless since losing his job, and then his marriage, seven years ago. And now he does his best to survive, even in frigid weather.

"The cold keeps you awake," said the 50-year-old former roofer and mill worker, while standing in line at the Homeless Resource Network. "I walk a good 15 miles each day."

Home for Good: The Alliance to End Homelessness has been implementing a 10-year plan to solve the homeless problem in Columbus. The agency, which is affiliated with the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley, will be looking for people like Reece the week of Jan. 26 through 31 to create a local registry of individuals and families living on the streets or in shelters. The effort is part of a national campaign to house 100,000 vulnerable and chronically homeless individuals and families by July.

Home for Good, in partnership with the city and other organizations, will use the information to help homeless people obtain and sustain permanent housing, said Christie Bevis, the agency's executive director. Individuals and families will be prioritized based on greatest need, using a vulnerability index developed by the Boston Health Care Initiative.

To conduct the survey, Home for Good is recruiting volunteers to canvass the streets for three consecutive days and collect information from homeless residents. Teams will be led by people who work with the homeless on a regular basis. They will start at 6 each morning, targeting areas where the homeless are known to congregate.

Bevis said volunteers will also be needed to do data entry and survey clients at the Homeless Resource Network and the Open Door Showering program. In all, about 50 volunteers are needed. They will be trained to avoid unpleasant confrontations with homeless people.

"We're very concerned about safety and security, not only for our volunteers, but also for our homeless clients because we are, in essence, going into their home," she said. "Although it's unsheltered, we are going into the place where they live. So there's a protocol that we will follow to make sure everybody is safe."

The local 10-year plan to end homelessness was approved by Columbus Council in 2011, and Bevis was hired in 2012 to lead the project. She said the agency's top priority is helping people who are chronically homeless with a disabling condition get permanent housing. She said they are usually people with mental/physical disabilities, substance abuse problems or a combination of both. While such cases make up only about 10 percent of the homeless population, they account for well over 50 percent of homeless service dollars.

The other 90 percent of the homeless population are people in financial crisis who usually need short-term help. In those cases, the focus will be on intervention and prevention, Bevis explained.

She said the agency is already working with the Columbus Housing Authority to develop 150 units of permanent supportive housing over the next several years through a Moving to Work designation awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Plans to redevelop Booker T. Washington and other public housing units also are expected to include units for the chronically homeless, she said. The organization is also working with the state Department of Community Affairs to get more housing vouchers by the summer, she said.

Ruby Taylor, 48, said she became homeless three years ago after losing her job as a loan specialist at a bank in Charlotte, N.C. She said she earned $28 an hour in the position and received a severance package. But she couldn't find work when she relocated to Columbus to care for a sick uncle. She currently stays at the Trinity House of Columbus, where she receives a variety of services.

"I have faith that it's all going to work out," Taylor said last week, while waiting for a bus pass at the Homeless Resource Network. "I'm still looking for a job and making progress."

Elizabeth Dillard, executive director of the Homeless Resource Network, said there's been a shift in how the government and service providers view homelessness, and the 10-year plan is helping the community be more strategic in addressing the problem.

She said HUD already requires a point-in-time annual census during the last 10 days of January, but this year's Home for Good survey will be more comprehensive.

"Homelessness is about what happens in our emergency rooms. It's about what happens in our jails, what happens with our fire and rescue, what happens when a building burns down because a person built a fire because he was cold," she said. "The 10-year plan really looks at the broader piece. How do we make sure that we are using our dollars in the wisest way?"

To volunteer for the homeless survey, contact Bevis at 706-327-3255 ext. 201 or cbevis@unitedwayofthecv.org.

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