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Photo: John May / Team Williams LLC
The Shower to Empower Trailer offers showers, haircuts, & medical services to people experiencing homelessness in Providence, Rhode Island.

Yay, Rhode Island! Good idea!

I am told that if you ask homeless people about their immediate needs, one of the things you will hear is that they long for a way to take a shower.

Talia Blake of Rhode Island public radio reports on what Providence is doing about that aspect of homelessness.

“Providence has launched a mobile unit to give showers, haircuts, and medical services to residents who are homeless. … After seeing a trailer in the Midwest that was giving showers to the homeless, and a YoutTube video of a barber in the UK giving a homeless individual a shower, entrepreneur Bret Williams thought ‘why not do that in my home state of Rhode Island and take it a step further?’

“Williams, along with nonprofit homeless service organization House of Hope and city of Providence, launched what they’re calling the Shower to Empower mobile navigation unit. Attached to the back of a pickup truck, the trailer has two individual showers, heated floors, an area for haircuts, and an enclosed private medical space. …

” ‘The Empower message comes from the showers and haircuts. Being able to help them best better their situation, restore dignity, restore pride, you know their outlook on the day, on their life,’ said [John May, from Williams’ LLC Team Williams]. At the beginning, the trailer will be parked in areas around Providence for three to four hours a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with five staff members.

“According to a report in December by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than a thousand individuals in Rhode Island are homeless.”

I once interviewed Jean Johnson, founder of the above-mentioned House of Hope Community Development Corporation, for my old magazine. What an inspiring woman! She’s retired now, but this effort sounds like something she would have loved to see implemented, although her ultimate goal was always to get people housed.

Listen to the audio version of the story here.

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Photo: Kol Peterson
Los Angeles will pay homeowners who are willing to house pre-screened homeless families by creating “granny flats,” like this accessory dwelling unit over a garage in Portland, Oregon.

I like stories on creative ways cities are trying to tackle homelessness. These initiatives may seem like a drop in the bucket, but some may actually work well over time and help alleviate the effects of our extreme inequality. You have to start somewhere. After all, the homeless population includes working families unable to make ends meet on their wages.

As Vanessa Romo wrote at National Public Radio last month, “In an attempt to alleviate the soaring homelessness problem in Los Angeles County, officials want to pay homeowners to house people by building new living units or bringing existing dwellings up to code if they are in violation.

“It’s part of a $550,000 pilot program launched by the LA Community Development Commission to explore new ways to safely and at a relatively low cost, provide housing options for handful of the county’s nearly 60,000 homeless residents.

“The county Board of Supervisors has narrowed down the pool of applicants from 500 to 27 and is in the final stages of selecting a group of six property owners who are ready and willing to start construction in the fall, according to the LA Times. The county is also leading a design competition for model secondary dwelling units.

“Officials will consider whether to expand the program after 18 months. …

” ‘People are looking at what they can do to make our neighborhoods more affordable and help more Angelenos find stable places to live,’ LA Mayor Eric Garcetti told the Times.

“Garcetti has been urging property owners to build secondary units, or ‘granny flats’ as they’re often called, in their backyards for years. He estimated it could create 50,000 more units if only 10 percent of homeowners would take on the challenge. …

“The Times also reported ‘the loan principal will be reduced each year the unit is occupied by a formerly homeless person and forgiven after 10 years, at which point the homeowners can do as they wish with the housing.’ …

“Los Angeles is only the latest county trying to take on the nation’s homelessness crisis by inducing property owners to provide affordable housing.

“Multnomah County in Oregon started a similar project last summer where four homeowners agreed to have a small unit built on their lot and pledged to provide housing for pre-screened homeless candidates for at least five years.”

More.

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0321-ddp-finland-homeless

Photo: Gordon F. Sander
Residents at a Housing First facility near Helsinki, Finland. Emmi Vuorela, right, is the resident coordinator. 

“Housing First” is a model that parts of the United States have adopted on a limited scale. It provides housing to homeless people without making behavior changes a prerequisite. The theory is that a person is more likely to get off an alcohol dependency, say, if he has the stability of shelter.

Now Finland has not only seen the wisdom of the concept, it has decided to go much bigger and provide every homeless person with housing. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when a society as a whole makes up its mind to do something sensible. Sensible because the program not only helps individuals but pays for itself.

Gordon F. Sander writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “As anyone who has visited Europe recently can attest, the scourge of homelessness has reached epidemic proportions.

“The only exception to the trend is Finland, according to FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless. There, homelessness is, remarkably, on the decline.

“Per the latest statistics, the number of homeless people in Finland has declined from a high of 18,000 30 years ago, to approximately 7,000: the latter figure includes some 5,000 persons who are temporarily lodging with friends or relatives. In short, the problem has basically been solved. ..

“Finland opted to give housing to the homeless from the start, nationwide, so as to allow them a stable environment to stabilize their lives.

“ ‘Basically, we decided that we wanted to end homelessness, rather than manage it,’ says Juha Kaakinen, CEO of the Y-Foundation, which helps provide 16,500 low-cost apartments for the homeless. …

The elimination of homelessness first appeared in the Helsinki government’s program in 1987. Since then virtually every government has devoted significant resources toward this end.

“Around 10 years ago, however, observers noticed that although homelessness in general was declining, long-term homelessness was not. A new approach to the problem was called for, along with a new philosophy. …

“The concept behind the new approach was not original; it was already in selective use in the US as part of the Pathways Model pioneered by Dr. Sam Tsemberis in the 1990s to help former psychiatric patients. What was different, and historic, about the Finnish Housing First model was a willingness to enact the model on a nationwide basis.

“ ‘We understood, firstly, that if we wanted to eradicate homelessness we had to work in a completely different way,’ says Mr. Kaakinen, who acted as secretary for the Finnish experts. … ‘We decided as a nation to do something about this.’…

“One of [the] goals was to cut the number of long-term homeless in half by producing 1,250 new homes, including supported housing units for tenants with their own leases, and around-the-clock presence of trained caring staff for residents who needed help. …

“As far as the not inconsiderable cost of producing the 3,500 units created between 2008 and 2015 – estimated at just under $382 million – [Sanna Vesikansa, the deputy mayor of Helsinki] declares that ‘the program pays for itself.’ As evidence, she points to a case study undertaken by the Tampere University of Technology in 2011. It showed society saved $18,500 per homeless person per year who had received a rental apartment with support, due to the medical and emergency services no longer needed to assist and respond. …

” ‘That doesn’t cover the contribution to the economy [from] residents who moved on from supported housing and got jobs,’ she adds.”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Good News Network
Philani Dladla, once homeless, now serves others with the money he gets selling used books he reviews.

Terry Turner reported recently on a South African man who went through a period of homelessness and, while relying on the kindness of strangers, gave a lot of thought to how he might give back. He started providing book reviews for used books he sold and using the proceeds to help others.

Turner’s Good News Network piece begins, “Called the ‘Pavement Bookworm,’ he may look like a roadside panhandler, but this once homeless man is actually running a reading foundation. …

“Philani Dladla credits his love of books, specifically motivational ones, with breaking his drug habit. Now that he’s clean, he has dedicated his life to being of service to others.

“Today, he can be found selling used books to passing motorists — but only after he’s read them first. That way, he can give passersby a book review and set the price accordingly; from a dollar for books he doesn’t like, to six dollars for real page-turners.

“While still homeless himself, Dladla began using the money to buy other homeless people soup and bread every day.

“ ‘Seeing their smiles motivated me to keep using the little I had to spread happiness,’ Dladla said. …

“No longer homeless, he still feeds those on the streets, and even started a ‘Pavement Bookworm’ Book Readers’ Club in a local park where kids can hang out and read until their parents come home from work.

“He has also set up a website where people in Johannesburg, South Africa, can donate books or support a child in the reading club.”

Read more at Good News Network, here.

I’m pretty clueless about how to interact with someone who is homeless, although I’ve learned to smile since Suzanne told me that smiling was Mother Teresa’s advice.

And I’m getting to know the woman who spends the winter in one of the two ladies room cubicles at the Porter Square T station. She tends to rant, but her rants sometimes make sense. I think it’s a kindness that the T lets her stay on cold nights. She doesn’t seem to be doing any harm. Of course, it’s an outrage that anyone is without a home in this country.

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Photo: The Empowerment Plan
Many people experiencing homelessness would like a job even more than a coat warm enough to sleep in outside.

A student’s idea to help people experiencing homelessness got a whole lot better after a homeless woman offered advice.

Kimberly Wong writes at Streetwise magazine, “Some students might believe that school projects are only good for a grade, but Empowerment Plan founder and CEO Veronika Scott knew that they could be something more. Scott was a student at The College for Creative Studies in Detroit when her professor assigned her class a project to fill a real need in the community. Noticing the homelessness that pervaded the city, Scott, who was only 20 years old at the time, began to visit a homeless shelter to try to figure out how she could help people who were homeless. …

“Scott visited the homeless shelter three times a week for five months. Hearing the ideas of the people living in the shelter showed her what she needed to do — she had to make a coat. She learned to sew from her mother, and even after the project was over, she continued to work on this coat that she hoped would change the lives of as many of the homeless as possible.

“The water-resistant coat she was designing would be able to be transformed into a sleeping bag at night or into an over-the-shoulder bag on warmer days. As Scott was in the process of perfecting the design for her coat, she was approached by a homeless woman who told her emphatically that what she really needed wasn’t a coat, but a job.

“Taking this feedback to heart, Scott partnered with a shelter and hired two homeless women to start making coats that would come to be known as EMPWR coats.

“Scott paid the women to learn industrial sewing and manufacturing and brought local designers on to the project. Just like that, the Empowerment Plan was born. …

“The Empowerment Plan has been running for almost seven years and has 35 employees. All of the employees were hired while homeless and have since secured permanent housing with their families.

“Jessica West, a seamstress team leader at the Empowerment Plan, is just one example of the way the Empowerment Plan has changed lives. West was sleeping in her car with her children before they moved into a homeless shelter. She discovered the Empowerment Plan while living in the shelter and has been working with them for two years. She and her children currently live in a comfortable home fully furnished by non-profit organization Humble Design, … one of the many organizations the Empowerment Plan works with to improve the lives of their employees. …

“Usually, Empowerment Plan employees work at the organization from one to three years, but this is by no means a set timeline. Above all, the Empowerment Plan is focused on the individual growth of its employees.

“The employees at the Empowerment Plan are paid through the sponsorship of EMPWR coats — and since the coats also go toward helping the homeless community, it’s a win-win situation. Sponsoring an EMPWR coat costs $100, which covers the cost of materials, the seamstresses’ wages, and overhead. EMPWR coats are mainly sponsored by individuals, corporations, and non-profit organizations. The Red Cross has even sponsored EMPWR coats for disaster relief. …

“While the organization currently relies on donations, it is working to become self-sustaining [with] a new retail line of coats with functions similar to the EMPWR coat but with its own style.”

More here.

Hat tip: Spare Change News, Boston’s street newspaper.

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Photo: Getty
Auckland Libraries in New Zealand figured out why their books were going missing and came up with a win-win solution.

If you know how to read, you want to read, and librarians want you to read. But not everyone has easy access to books. That is why some readers in New Zealand were sneaking books.

Mark Molloy writes at the UK’s Telegraph, “A New Zealand library has finally solved the mystery of why some books were going missing from its shelves.

“Auckland Libraries staff were bewildered after finding some books were being hidden in random places. They initially thought kids playing pranks were to blame, but later discovered it was the city’s rough sleepers who were actually stashing the books so they could return the next day to continue reading.

“ ‘A lot of our street community were wanting to put them underneath the couches or underneath book shelves and kind of hiding them in various places,’ librarian Sean Taylor told TV NZ. … Without a permanent address they were unable to sign up for a library card that would allow them to take the literature away.

“As a solution, Auckland Library created a new section where books can now be left overnight and picked back up again the next morning. …

“ ‘They are really well read. We’ve got a guy who I’ve had a discussion about the meanings of words and we’ll talk about the reference section and it’s the kind of intellectual conversation you’d expect from an academic.’ …

“Auckland Library says it sees itself as a ‘home for the homeless’ and holds regular cinema screenings and a book club for those sleeping rough. …

“ ‘One guy told me he moved to the city several years ago, and that none of his family back home knew he was homeless,” [said Rachel Rivera, manager of Auckland Libraries]. He used our computers to keep in touch with them. It was his lifeline to his family,’ she said.

“ ‘They value our service, like many of our communities do, for different reasons. But they don’t always feel safe and welcome, and that is something we can and should take steps to address.’ ”

More at the Telegraph, here. And look: Everything at the Auckland libraries website is in both English and Maori.

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Photo: Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
Tony Price, formerly homeless, grows tomatoes in his small patio garden and shares the produce with friends and neighbors. Now that he has permanent housing, he’s able to take better care of his health.

In the last decade, there’s been a lot written about how a small percentage of people use hospital emergency rooms on a regular basis and what could be done to stabilize them and save money. In today’s story, we find that providing housing for homeless patients can yield positive, long-term results.

From Pauline Bartolone and Kaiser Health News at Capital Public Radio: “Hospitals in Sacramento and around the country want to get [homeless patients] off the streets, to improve their health and minimize unnecessary visits to the ER. … That’s why many hospitals are stepping outside their role as medical providers to invest heavily in housing for homeless people.

“Dignity Health’s ‘Housing With Dignity’ initiative got Tony Price into an apartment, paid his rent for four months and set him up with a social worker who helped him become eligible for permanent housing. …

“A 2002 study showed that providing housing and supportive services, to more than 4,600 mentally ill homeless people in New York City dramatically reduced their presence in hospitals, shelters and correctional facilities. …

“Health insurers are starting to invest in housing, too. Dignity and other Sacramento hospitals have long funded ‘respite’ programs that shelter homeless people for a few weeks after their hospital stays, but the goal of ‘Housing With Dignity’ is to keep them from being homeless again. …

“Ashley Brand, Dignity’s director of community health and outreach, said the program is helping address the hospital chain’s longstanding challenge of ensuring that homeless patients get follow-up care after they’re discharged. …

“No matter how many times Tony Price visited Sacramento hospitals while he was living on the streets, he never got well. His diabetes was uncontrolled, he repeatedly lost the drugs he was taking for anxiety and depression and, he says, he regularly drank himself into ‘oblivion,’ sometimes consuming as much as half a gallon of vodka a day. …

“Price qualified for the services offered by ‘Housing with Dignity,’ which put him into a one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento’s sprawling North Highlands neighborhood in May 2015 and assigned him a social worker, Chris Grabe, who drove him to medical appointments. …

“He has been off the streets for nearly two and a half years, and he’s been to the hospital only once since January. … He now gardens, and he recently volunteered at a church and as a leader of an Alcoholics Anonymous group.”

At Capital Public Radio, here, you can read how Grabe stuck with Price through early relapses and what is needed to expand this effort to more people.

Hat tip: House of Hope CDC on twitter.

12/8/17 Update: Meanwhile in Boston, where one in four Boston Medical Center patients is homeless or in dangerous housing, BMC is partnering with local housing organizations and spending $6.5 million to help patients. This is the latest manifestation on BMC’s whole-patient approach to healing. Read about it here.

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