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A ‘Housing First’ Pioneer

Shankle House has sheltered vulnerable homeless people for 20 years

This editorial was originally published on August 13, 2017. Reprinted with the permission of The Register-Guard.

Salt Lake City is often credited with showing how to put the “housing first” model to work. The idea is to provide homeless people with shelter, which then makes it possible to address problems such as mental illness or substance abuse that can lead to a life on the streets. But Lane County has been quietly putting the “housing first” model into practice for 20 years, and is planning a significant expansion.

In 1997, Steve Manela, director of the county’s Human Services Division, obtained a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for what became Shankle House.

Former County Commissioner Bobby Green helped find the site: Bethel Temple Faith Ministry’s former church in Glenwood, built in 1965 by the Rev. Art Shankle, said to be the first African-American member of the local carpenter’s union. The ministry had moved to another location in west Eugene, leaving the Glenwood building empty.

ShelterCare won the contract to operate the program, and today Shankle House provides housing and support for 16 chronically homeless people. Another 12 people participate in the program but are housed in individual apartments in Eugene and Springfield.

Residents are drawn from a list of homeless people maintained by Lane County. Those at the top of the list meet HUD’s definition of chronic homelessness — they’ve been homeless for a year, or during four or more periods totaling 12 months during the past three years. People on the list are ranked in order of their vulnerability, which means that single people who are high on the list are often diagnosed with a mental illness and may have some additional disability or medical or behavioral problem.

Related: What is Housing First?

Those are the people — identified by the county and contacted by ShelterCare’s outreach workers in parks, at the Eugene Mission or elsewhere — who live at Shankle House. They are men and women in roughly equal numbers. On average they are in their early 50s, but ages range from 24 to nearly 70. The 50 percent to 60 percent of residents who have income pay 30 percent of it in rent. Income often takes the form of Social Security disability benefits, but Josh Knotts, assistant program manager at Shankle House, says one current resident found a housekeeping job on her own.

People tend to stay at Shankle House for a year or two — sometimes less, sometimes much longer. Susan Ban, executive director of ShelterCare, expects that turnover will allow the program, which has a capacity of 28, to serve about 45 people this year. Last year’s count was 34. While at Shankle House, residents receive treatment for mental health or substance abuse problems, medical care and help with such details as acquiring the valid identification needed for employment and some public benefits.

Equally important, residents are given a sense of security, three meals a day and an experience of social integration. Residents sign up for chores and participate in a community council.

Shankle House is not a jail. Every resident is there voluntarily and is free to leave. A resident can be kicked out for breaking the rules, though Knotts says “you have to do something pretty severe, like punch someone” to be expelled.

Residents are expected to be drug-free and sober, but there’s no testing, and Knotts says violations are “not a barrier to housing” — a person who returns to Shankle House inebriated can sleep it off, as long as there’s no threat to others’ safety.

It costs $583,000 a year to run Shankle House, with its six counselor/advocates, two cooks, three office workers and two overnight staff members. That’s about $20,000 per full-year resident. According to ShelterCare’s figures, that’s a savings: A homeless person runs up close to $30,000 a year in costs. Providing housing, along with the constellation of other services needed to keep that person off the streets, isn’t cheap — but it causes other costs, particularly for emergency medical care and incarceration, to decline steeply.

That’s one promise of the “housing first” model. But there’s a larger promise: Shankle House’s goal is to get its residents into independent housing arrangements. Most will continue to need various types of support, but the gains — financially and in terms of human dignity — can be substantial.

Manela says it would be difficult to obtain a HUD grant to start a second version of Shankle House today. But the Lane County Poverty and Homelessness Board intends to open a 50-unit “housing first” complex next to the Lane County Behavioral Health building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Eugene. The project is a partnership among Lane County, the Housing Authority and Community Services Agency of Lane County and a half-dozen non-profit agencies, including ShelterCare and St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County.

Manela hopes the new program can be open in a few years — and provided it’s done right, with adequate supportive services, it could have a significant effect on the number of homeless people in Lane County and their costs to society. Shankle House has shown how to make “housing first” work. Now it’s time to do it on a larger scale.

Editor’s note: This editorial is part of a Register-Guard project examining productive responses to homelessness.

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