By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Wendy was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Homeless and addicted, she was tired of sleeping on the streets, tired of her life revolving around finding and using drugs. Perhaps the drugs had quit working for her or maybe they were the only escape, however brief, she had from the struggles and pain of her daily existence.
Wendy was ready to change.
“She had just come to one of our case managers and said, ‘I’m tired of this. Can you help me?’” said Food and Shelter Executive Director April Doshier, who described Wendy as a “sweet young woman who was desperate.”
She didn’t make it that long.
Wendy was found dead of an apparent overdose in a city park earlier this week. Like many Norman residents who have lost their homes, she was mentally and physically vulnerable, living on the edge.
People who have lost their homes are among the most vulnerable population in any city, and the chronic homeless — those who have been homeless for more than a year — are most at risk. They also are a burden on communities. They show up at the hospital emergency room but can’t pay. They seek temporary respite in shelters, which can be costly. They end up in jail.
“Homelessness is expensive,” Doshier said. “It is more effective for communities to invest in solutions.”
Food and Shelter has joined with other Norman homeless service providers in a collaboration to solve the homeless problem. Bridges, the Norman Housing Authority, the Salvation Army, Thunderbird Clubhouse, United Way of Norman, Variety Care, the Women’s Resource Center and Food and Shelter have come together to find solutions. They are calling themselves “One Vision One Voice.”
These agencies are committed to getting people into homes.
“The housing first, services second is a model our entire service community is accepting,” Doshier said.
In the past, most service plans required people to do good before they qualified for homes. Now, the agencies of One Vision One Voice will work to put people into apartments or other long-term housing, then help them with other needed services, such as mental health or drug and alcohol counseling.
“We would be saving money as a community,” Doshier said.
It’s a model that’s working in other cities.
City Grants Planner Lisa Krieg serves on Norman’s End Chronic Homelessness Oversight Committee and is working with One Vision One Voice as the city seeks solutions and funding. On Thursday, Krieg presented videos on the homeless situation to ECHO and talked about the shift in methodology for dealing with the problem.
Housing and Urban Development also has shifted its focus. That’s part of the reason why East Main Place, a transitional living facility, is closing its doors.
The new model is to assess people who are homeless and assign a priority level — like doing triage and treating those who are the most sick or injured first.
Krieg said the new model is an attempt to provide “the appropriate level of services to the appropriate client.”
Right now, getting help is like the lottery system. It’s basically first come, first served. The new model would help those who are the most vulnerable first, based on a survey and ranking system.
It’s a model being used by the 100,000 Homes Campaign, and it’s making a difference in cities like Nashville, Tenn., which was featured in a “60 Minutes” episode.
The 100,000 Homes Campaign website, 100k-homes.org, is full of success stories and information about the change in approach to homelessness.
“For many people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, physical health challenges and drug or alcohol addictions, housing is the first step on their road to recovery,” the website says. “Other aspects of recovery — a medication regimen, substance abuse treatment and employment, for example — are a lot easier to take on when someone can sleep in a warm bed instead of a public park or shelter.”
Oklahoma city implemented its 100,000 Homes Campaign in January 2013. As of Feb. 26, 200 people have a place to stay.
While One Vision One Voice is not a part of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, that is the model Norman agencies want to follow in seeking solutions to chronic homelessness.
“We truly believe this is a direction that we want to go,” Krieg said.
Most people are homeless only once and only for a short period of time. Helping those in most dire need — the sick, the elderly and the chronic homeless — creates a priority of assistance that saves lives and tax dollars.
Families with children also will be a priority under the rapid rehousing program.
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