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Housing First for Families with Children

“70% of homeless New Yorkers are families with children… most of them led by women.  These mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters – many of whom have fled domestic violence – are the forgotten face of homelessness in our city.”  Women in Need (WIN) www.winnyc.org.

Permanent housing made available for these families and children would bring the homeless problem in NYC 70% closer to being solved.  DiGeronimo Architects holds a Technical Assistance Contract TAC with the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Homeless Housing Assistance Program HHAP.  We are excited to be part of the solution.

“The combination of stable housing and supportive services are the magic ingredients that make it possible for people who have frequently fallen through the cracks in the social safety-net to regain stability in their lives and move forward.”  Steven Banks commissioner of NYC Human Resources Administration / Department of Social Services.

In 2003 Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared he was going to end homelessness in 10 years.  What does ‘ending homeless’ mean?   Clearly there will always be homelessness.  Some even prefer their homeless lifestyle.

The Times lead Editorial March 4th 2017 acknowledges a debt to Pope Francis.  He offered a concrete, permanently useful prescription for dealing with panhandlers – giving someone something is always right.  But what if the panhandler uses the money for, say, a glass of wine?  Pope Francis proffers the way of giving as being as important as the gift.  You must stop, look the person in the eyes and touch his or her hand; by doing this you see the person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human with a life whose value is equal to yours.  So maybe compassion is the right call.  Give them the money and don’t worry about it.

Governor Andrew Como tosses money at the homeless housing problem – $20 Billion and a target of adding 100,000 affordable housing units in five years.  HUD had in previous years awarded $33 Million to help end youth homelessness and almost $2 Billion for local homeless programs.  Mayor de Blasio is committing $300 Million in capital spending to expand the 30 existing shelters and has plans to reallocate the money now spent on hotels and cluster sites for 90 new shelters.  These solutions are the same as they were back for Mayor Bloomberg in 2003 – “bricks mortar and money.”

One of life’s basic needs is shelter, just like food and water.  People need somewhere to stay; from providing foster care for abused and neglected children; to helping refugees find their ‘place’ in a new country; to housing a returning vet.  Find the best way to meet housing needs and you help the person build a sense of belonging, a pride of ownership, and a sense of self-sufficiency.  Housing – or the lack thereof – reflects the individuals’ economic environment.  The provision of housing for our homeless is a further reflection of society’s meeting the needs of its most vulnerable residents.

‘Permanent supportive housing’ is essentially an apartment building that has social workers available when needed.  Give a home to people who have experienced the trauma of living on the street without asking much more of them; give them access to case workers and nurses and a community.  If you do that, slowly they will acclimate to stability and become part of a community, which in turn creates a network of people helping each other stay stable.

Giving homes to the homeless sounds expensive but doing nothing is more so.  According to a Columbia University Study housing the homeless saves $15,000 per participant.  The average chronically homeless person in NYC costs the City $38,351 spent over 2 a year time frame on shelters, crisis health services, and jails.

A ‘Housing First’ program model gives people homes without requiring them first to do other things like get sober or off drugs or deal with mental illness.  Some say housing alone doesn’t solve all the problem people face.  Supportive housing organizations address this criticism by building not just bricks and mortar, but also by building community – networks that make residents feel safe.  Once safe, the resident can venture out to address underlying issues.  It’s a program and also a clinical approach.

Medicine Hat, a small town in Alberta, Canada is on the leading edge of a country wide effort to end homelessness through the ‘Housing First’ strategy.  The strategy has been widely adopted in Europe and Australia.  In the US, it has found its most striking success in reducing homelessness among military veterans in cities like New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix.  But no country has embraced the approach as firmly as Canada.

In Medicine Hat, anyone identified as homeless is offered a home without preconditions for sobriety and other self-improvement that keep many people on the street elsewhere.  Alcoholic?  Here’s a one-bedroom apartment where you can live – even if you’re still drinking.  Drug Addict?  Here’s a studio with heat and hot water – even if you’re still getting high.  Mentally ill?  Here’s a place to feel safe and call your own – and where case workers can find you.  Living in a community rather than on the streets is life changing.

The DiGeronimo Architectural approach to supportive housing design focuses on creating community within buildings, on making sure residents feel comfortable there and with neighbors and staff.  Slowly, residents join in-house groups, coffee clubs, attend holiday dinners, and make monthly floor meetings.  We design comfortable shared spaces where people want to spend time to talk with friends and neighbors.  We design spaces to encourage interaction at likely gathering spots within the building, spaces where people naturally socialize and can casually ‘bump into’ others.

Dealing with single adults is a demographic that, so far, has led the homeless conversation, despite making up only 30 percent of the population.  Addressing the challenges that homeless families face requires a different strategy.  It means focusing on the needs of children and the single women who head the household; on developing a multiyear plan for construction of the necessary number of units; on planning for support services; and on prioritizing long-term stability over temporary shelters.

The recommendations in Mayor de Blasio current plan to combat homelessness includes a neighborhood-based approach.  He would strive to keep homeless families in their neighborhoods close to home while growing community support for building additional community-centered facilities.  His plan includes reducing the use of cluster apartments and hotels as shelter; increasing rental assistance and supportive services.  Cluster and hotel housing frequently lacks proper security and necessary services.  Full-service shelters and permanent housing provides more than just beds to sleep in; they provide opportunities and support services for residents to move on to re-establishing self-worth and self-respect.

DiGeronimo designs affordable housing for homeless families, women and children.  Housing is provided in the upper floors of a high rise building by way of small apartment private spaces less than 700 sf – two bedrooms, a living area, efficiency kitchen, one bathroom, storage and closets.  We use wide corridors as indoor streets; residents use them as an extension of living quarters.  Apartments ring a floor.  In the floor central space is a community area include a common living room and ‘communal table’ for eating, homework, and general hand tasks.  Another floor dedicated shared facility is a laundry.

Program components depend on service needs the service providers identify; still all services identified need physical spaces in which to perform their designated functions.  On the lower floors are classrooms, a large multipurpose room, storage, administration, staff lounge, staff rest rooms, and counseling rooms.  Security at the building entry point is unobtrusive but effective because of design configuration.  Street level retail space includes clinic type facilities (Med-emerge, dentist, pharmacy, drug store, deli, and/or small grocer.)  Outdoor and roof top facilities are child-oriented play areas and micro-sports practice fields.

From this core of spaces, programs can include a wide variety of options:  welcoming reception (functioning as the security check point;) child care; before school / after school programs to assist with homework and nurture a love of competitive games; college prep and tutoring; lunchroom, warming kitchen; multipurpose room, for indoor sports, plays, music;  teacher lounge, toilets;  training and continuing education classrooms for adults after work hours with access to child care, high school equivalency;  multipurpose room for parties, plays, resident gatherings, lecture presentations; service provider administration, files, storage.

We can develop excellent, useful, and practical permanent housing for compassionate understanding of the special needs of homeless families, women and children.  If we can’t end homelessness, let’s address the 70% portion of it.

In October 2012 after their rent skyrocketed, Angela Merette could no longer afford to keep the family’s apartment in Queens and so they became homeless.  Angela along with her children Angely Tejada 14, Joel 7 and Jessenia 10 were desperate.

“I told them not to lose hope, but it was hard to have hope.”

While living in a temporary homeless shelter, Tejada attended the High School of Applied Communication in Long Island City.  105,445 homeless kids attended New York City Schools 2015-2016.  They often struggle with academics and often miss class.  Four years later while living the entire time in homeless shelters, Tejada managed to graduate from high school and enroll in college, supported by her good academics and with the help of federal and state financial aid.  This same year, Women in Need WIN found permanent housing for Angela and her family.  They moved into their new apartment on December 16th 2016, just in time for Christmas.