Huston Commons is the city’s third ‘housing first’ facility, based on a national model that provides homes so people can then deal with factors contributing to their homelessness.
In Joe Meyers’ new apartment, he has a potted succulent on the windowsill. He has a bed with a blue bedspread. He has shelves stocked with oatmeal and canned vegetables.
But his favorite part is the door.
“I can close the door and be left alone,” Meyers said. “This is a life-changing type of thing. I’m 62, but this is still a life-changing type of thing.”
Meyers has been homeless in Portland off and on for 17 years. He is one of 30 new tenants at Huston Commons, Portland’s third housing development for the chronically homeless. The apartment building is owned by Avesta Housing and run by Preble Street. All residents have been homeless for at least a year or had four episodes of homelessness within a three-year period, but many exceed those standards. One has spent 3,000 nights at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland.
Huston Commons operates under a national model known as “housing first.” The goal is to first provide a stable housing environment where people can later deal with other factors contributing to their homelessness. Support services are available to the residents 24 hours a day.
Cities across the United States began to adopt this strategy in the 1990s, and Avesta opened the first program under this model in Portland 12 years ago. Now, housing first is a key component of the federal strategy to end homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers housing-first projects as a top funding priority, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has endorsed the practice as a proven approach to help people obtain permanent housing.
“We have seen concrete results across the nation,” said Rhonda Siciliano, public affairs officer for the HUD New England region.
FEWER LIMITATIONS, GOOD OUTCOMES
Avesta opened its first housing-first facility, the 30-unit Logan Place on Frederic Street, in 2005.
Unlike many other housing programs at the time, Logan Place didn’t require tenants to be in recovery from mental illness or substance use disorder when they moved in.
“Housing first takes all that off the table and says, ‘Come and live here,’ ” said Jon Bradley, associate director of Preble Street.
A study conducted by the Maine State Housing Authority showed that after one year, Logan Place relieved stress on Portland’s emergency services and resulted in better outcomes for formerly homeless people. The cost of health care services for 24 tenants decreased by more than $191,500, or 70 percent, in their first year at Logan Place. Those residents also spent fewer nights in jail and did not interact as often with police, which saved an estimated $24,200 for law enforcement agencies. Bradley said evictions happen, but they are rare.
“We found people who were in treatment tended to get treatment,” Bradley said. “People who were using alcohol a lot tended not necessarily to stop, but either to use substantially less or go into recovery.”
A second housing-first facility opened in 2010. The Florence House on Valley Street is home to 40 women who are mostly victims of domestic violence.
Avesta Housing announced plans for Huston Commons on Bishop Street in 2014. The project was estimated to cost $5 million and received a combination of state and federal funding. Tenants at Huston Commons receive housing vouchers from the Portland Housing Authority and put 30 percent of their income toward rent. At Logan Place, which also uses housing vouchers, Bradley said that payment ranges from nothing to about $335. A person who is subject to a lifetime registration requirement on a sex offender registry or who has been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine is not eligible for these vouchers.
An annual point-in-time survey in 2016 identified 1,192 homeless people in Maine, including 497 in the Portland area, and the housing-first model zeroed in on those who have been on the street the longest. A committee of social services agencies chose the Huston Commons tenants from a waiting list of 120 people.
Of the 30 tenants, many have chronic medical conditions. Thirteen were regulars at the Oxford Street shelter, and 12 have been sleeping outside for years. Eight are women. Three are veterans.
Meyers was No. 1 on the waiting list.
ON THE WAITING LIST SINCE 2014
Originally from Detroit, Meyers was drafted into the Army at age 18.
He deployed to Vietnam for a year as a helicopter repairman. He has spent the decades since the war traveling and working across the country. He worked at Yosemite National Park and said he cooked for Queen Elizabeth II when she visited there in the 1980s. He worked for General Motors in his hometown for nearly two decades. And 17 years ago, he met a woman who convinced him to stay in Maine.
They occasionally lived in apartments, but Meyers said he always has struggled to make enough money to afford a lease or a hotel room. He left his last apartment because of tension with his landlord. He has crashed with friends and slept in shelters and camped outside. He remembered being afraid to leave his tent when the temperature was 20 below zero.
“Whatever I could do,” he said. “I was a survivor.”
When his girlfriend died several years ago, Meyers said his life became even more unstable.
“I kind of, whoosh, slid down, you know?” he said.
Meyers has been on the waiting list for a housing-first unit at Logan Place since 2014. He didn’t realize he qualified for benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, so a caseworker recently helped him apply. He knew Huston Commons’ namesake – Steve Huston, a longtime advocate for the homeless who died in 2012.
“Steve would have loved this place,” Meyers said. “When I heard Huston Commons, I was like, ‘Damn, Steve-O.”
Meyers moved in last week. He reads books to pass the time and fills the unfamiliar silence of his room with talk radio. He had a list of items to buy to stock his apartment, but he threw it away because his new efficiency was equipped with the basics. At his place Wednesday, Meyers joked with Huston Commons supervisor Hillary Colcord.
“Can I have a girlfriend?” he asked.
“That’s up to you,” she said.
Meyers lives around the corner from the community kitchen and the laundry machines. The staff is planning a Memorial Day cookout on the back patio. His neighbors are arriving in waves. Meyers turned toward the patio for a smoke break. Bradley, the Preble Street staffer, paused before closing the door to his apartment.
“You got your key?” Bradley called down the hallway.
Meyers didn’t turn around, but he patted the pocket of his jacket.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Always.”
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