Housing First: a Foundation for Growth

Housing First is a research-based best-practice model, which prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness. Ending their homelessness serves as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. ShelterCare utilizes this model in all of our programs in an effort to provide the stability our program participants need to grow. “When you are vulnerable and living on the streets, it’s much more difficult to be successful in other areas of your life,” explains Willamette Johnson – Housing Specialist at The Commons on MLK.

ShelterCare employs several Housing Specialists who work to connect program participants to housing and social services. They meet regularly, with participants, to work on goals such as learning how to keep their apartment clean or reconnecting with family members, “By providing housing, case management, and peer support specialists with lived experience in addiction and homelessness, we are helping these people much more than just getting them a job,” says Willamette.

Having this consistent support is important as many of our program participants have grown accustomed to being distrustful of others. “It’s a really vulnerable position living on the streets no matter your age or gender – it can cause a lot of anxiety when they’re worried about people stealing their things. It’s part of our job to provide reassurance that we have the ability to provide them with adequate ways to secure their belongings,” Willamette says.

Chad Ward, Lead Housing Specialist, has been with ShelterCare for five years and has had many experiences reassuring his participants – one, in particular, stood out to him, “I was working with this couple for over a year and they had been stably housed in the same apartment, but there was never anything on the walls – no pictures, nothing,” says Chad, “One day I asked them, ‘When are you guys going to put your stuff up?’ and they said they felt like at any moment, it could all be ripped away.” After talking with Chad, they eventually hung up all their pictures.

It’s the little things, like getting to hang your pictures, that can make all the difference to those who’ve experienced homelessness, “seeing people live in a complex and enjoy not just being housed, but doing what you and I would do regularly like sitting in the living room and watching TV, making food on their stove or in their microwave, having neighbors they can spend time with and interact within a safe, housed setting, having access to the internet, and having the ability to call someone if they need to whenever they want,” are some of the most memorable moments for Willamette.

Marcus Reed, Housing Specialist for young adults, had a similar experience when helping a program participant get an Emotional Support Animal letter from his therapist, “I remember giving that letter to the property manager, getting the confirmation he could keep his cat, and him just crying. It’s something so simple, but it’s the simple things a Housing Specialist can show you – if I wasn’t there, he wouldn’t have been able to keep the cat or he would’ve had to leave.”

Marcus discusses how this positive impact goes both ways in the long run, “Having our clients incorporate into the community adds a new perspective. If we can build up these people, they will build up other people and we can diversify the city of Eugene.”

Housing Specialists have a unique understanding for the population we work with, “The important thing to remember is homelessness is incredibly nuanced and you can’t judge it based on the stories you hear, the people you see on the street begging for money, or people having a mental health crisis in the park,” says Willamette.

Chad talks about what it’s actually like to be unhoused, “It is traumatic to be unhoused. You don’t get treated well by the general public…the one thing they do all have in common is trauma.”

Housing Specialists connect our program participants to mental health professionals however, they still end up being a support system for their participants, “For me, the most challenging part is seeing people that you work with make similar or the same mistakes again and again and end up in the same situations…when you’ve been in survival mode for so long and you’ve had so much trauma done to you, you only know one way to live…that’s what the housing first model allows us to do – if someone loses their housing, we continue working with them and hope that they can move past whatever lost them their housing.”

Housing Specialists are a big part of ShelterCare’s implementation of the Housing First approach. They are the supports that help secure and maintain the base need of housing so people can begin to focus on other life goals such as their personal health, addiction, relationships, or jobs.

“I used to have this supervisor that said, “The vast majority of drug users are housed.” Think of all the people living outside and all the people that do drugs – it just makes sense. The vast majority of people with behavioral health issues are also living inside. It’s just about what their support system is like… I know I’m where I’m at today because of the support that I had from friends and family. I know a lot of people who are unhoused that didn’t get that same support,” says Chad, “The unhoused population is not lazy, they do not want to be homeless – in my experience, only a handful claim that. It can happen to anyone. A lot of us are living paycheck to paycheck and if you lose one of those paychecks, you could lose your house and all your stuff. They’re just people.”

Our Housing Specialists provide the support so many of our program participants need to become and remain housed. Your donation supports ShelterCare’s housing first approach by employing compassionate people like Willamette, Marcus, and Chad to build up their participants to a place of stability and independence.

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