Fighting Homelessness by Providing Homes

At last count Camden county had about 650 homeless residents, more than half were disabled.

By Briana Vannozzi

In Camden, a partnership to end homelessness that turns the process upside down. “Housing first” first provides homes. Then provides the help that people need to keep their homes while they’re Chasing the Dream.

The idea is fairly simple: Decrease the number of chronically homeless by giving them homes.

“I was living at Joseph’s House, which is a shelter, and before that I was really living on the streets,” said Peter Bowser.

Now Bowser has a second shot with his own apartment, and with help getting back on his feet. He’s one of the first participants in the newly launched housing first program of Camden County.

“It originated about 10 years ago in New York City. In the old model we put people in shelters, and then it could take them years to get in to permanent housing and they had to be clean, be sober, be treated for mental illness,”Dr. Jeffrey Brenner from Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers said.

Most ended up back on the streets. This model offers a home with wrap around services to follow.

“It turns out within about six months many of the patients are more sober. Their mental illnesses start to go away as they get into treatment. The stress of being homeless, or in a shelter, is so much that people can’t get treatment,” he said.

“Often times I’m meeting some of our homeless patients right as they come out of the hospital and we’re looking to identify the most vulnerable, medically needy, to try to get them stabilized first and then into interim housing. But then to move them very quickly into permanent housing,” said Bill Nice, intervention specialist.

Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Charles Richman has pledged 50 vouchers to start. They’re paid for with federal grants. He says that in the end it saves tax payers money.

“It will cost about $10,000 a year to provide those services, but for a frequent user of an emergency room each visit is $10,000. The potential savings to be able to reinvest in more health care is enormous,” Richman said.

At last count Camden county had about 650 homeless residents, more than half were disabled. Once these 50 participants are placed in a home the program will then work to bring in needed services — like behavioral and addiction help.

“If you don’t know where your next meal is going to come, if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep that night, how are you to worry about these things? How are you going to worry about going to the pharmacy and getting your medications when you don’t know if you’re even going to be able to eat that day?” asked Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez.

“It does give me a sense of security. I feel more at ease now. I’m not worrying about where I’m going to sleep at, or where I’ll eat at. I don’t have to worry about that,” Bowser said.

Homes will be scattered around the county rather than designated to one location. The result, they hope, is to take people who are barely surviving and give them a life worth living.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.