Monday, June 22, 2009

OTRCH: Jimmy Heath House is not 'shelter', but a proven concept

Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH) project manager Sarah Allan wants to set the record straight about the Jimmy Heath House, a 25-unit permanent supportive housing project for the homeless at 209-219 Odeon Street in Over-the-Rhine.

She takes particular issue with an article that appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Headline: "New shelter would allow drinking". [NOTE: Article no longer available for free.]

"It was unfortunate with the Enquirer article because it didn't do this project justice," Allan says. "In fact, it really spread some falsehoods about what it is. I mean the headline, 'New shelter would allow drinking'. That's a part of it, but that's not the focus. The focus is getting the chronically homeless into a stable situation. And, it's not a shelter."

The idea, she says, is to address the 10 to 20 percent of the homeless population that cycle between the streets, shelters, jail cells, and emergency rooms.

The idea is not to enable the residents, but to stabilize their living situations, Allan says.

Only then can they move toward sobriety, she says.

"They call it a 'wet shelter'," Allan says. "Yes, they can drink in their apartments because they basically have a lease. They would be renting an apartment. So you can't tell someone that they can't drink."

Idea duplicated elsewhere

The project is based on an idea called "Housing First", which is already in action in more than 150 cities and counties throughout the United States, including New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington DC, Denver, San Francisco, and Atlanta.

"There's a certain amount of the homeless population that's chronically homeless," Allan says. "Typically what they've done with permanent supportive housing is that they're like, 'Well, you have to be sober in order to come here,' and they've found that with this particular population that just doesn't work."

Best practices studied from these projects, which include housing and supportive services, have found that it's a better approach to alcoholism among the homeless population than other ideas that have been tried.

"The other things we've been doing have not been working to deal with this population," Allan says.

Allan says that they've looked at many of these national programs, including several that are now in place in Columbus.

This would be the first such program in Hamilton County.

"The thing is, this is a model that's been done, so we don't want to reinvent the wheel," Allan says.

Support is key

The Jimmy Heath House will be made up of five interconnected buildings – plus one in back – with a single entry point.

The development would include 11 efficiency apartments and 14 one-bedrooms.

"There's 24-hour front desk staff, so where this is different from a regular apartment is that there are definitely more rules," Allan says. "So it is monitored. At the same time, it's that balance of making sure that people have freedom to move toward sobriety and independence."

Visitors would only be allowed during certain hours, and there will be 24-hour video surveillance.

Common areas will be designed to draw residents out of their rooms and into interpersonal relationships with other tenants.

"We're really focusing on making the common areas very usable, so it'll be pretty flexible space, and a big meeting area and a big courtyard," Allan says. "And in the back building, which will be connected to these buildings, there will be an office in there. And at this point, we're looking to try to have a live-in peer support worker -- someone who may be in recovery who is there to provide support all the time."

Additionally, residents will have access to a part-time clinician, a case manager, and a service coordinator.

"The residents are not required to use any of these services unless they break one of the house rules," Allan says. "Or, if they're back on their rent, they may have to go to financial classes or things like that. But they'll all be assigned a case manager, and they'll be encouraged to interact and to get supportive services."

The Jimmy Heath House will work with neighborhood services such as the Elm Street Health Clinic, Alcoholism Council of the Cincinnati Area, Hamilton County Mental Health and Recovery Services, Health Care for the Homeless, the Freestore Foodbank direct rent program, Consumer Credit Counseling Services, and the Homeless Individuals Partnership Program.

However, no resident will be required to use the services.

"It's kind of loose, because it's on an individual, case-by-case basis," Allan says. "Some are going to have mental health issues, so they're just going to need counseling. But the reality is that there are some residents who will never want to get involved. As long as they're not breaking the rules, they can live there."

Screening will be done

Allan says that it's believed that the chronically homeless population of Cincinnati is somewhere between 100 and 150 people.

"The hope is that eventually all of the chronically homeless can be in this kind of housing, and that this would be a model" she says. "Now, for picking the 25, we're going to be working closely with the Drop Inn Center, specifically, and probably some other agencies that work with the chronically homeless. But we're still working out how people will be referred, and how do we screen our tenants."

The ability to pay rent may be a factor, though no resident will be required to pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent.

Three of the 25 will be designated as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Low Rent HOME assisted units, and eight will be designated High Rent HOME assisted units.

"They do have to pay some kind of rent," Allan says. "A lot of them aren't going to have any income, so they'll probably get subsidy or help with paying their rent.

Allan says that the hope is that the tenants ultimately decide what's best for the property.

"What we're hoping to do is to have a tenant council," she says. "That kind of council would make the house rules. We put the key support people in place, but then the actual programmatic stuff will come as the tenants live there and become involved."

Eventually, tenants can move on to other housing.

"They're not transitioning out of it, although a lot will," Allan says. "The hope is that, if they move toward wholeness and getting better, then the social worker can help them find their own apartment somewhere, if that's what they want."

Problem tenants will not be tolerated, Allan says.

"If you violate your lease – especially if there's any drug activity – those are grounds for eviction," she says.

What's the alternative?

Although OTRCH focuses on OTR, it heard the rumblings about the "over-concentration" of social services and decided to look outside of the neighborhood.

Other neighborhoods immediately shot them down.

"I can appreciate that you don't want an over-concentration," Allan says. "At the same time, there's market-rate development going on. Our role is low-income housing. Which, again, they might say that that's not what they're opposing."

3CDC, which owns the buildings, looked at putting condominiums at the site.

The numbers just didn't work, and 3CDC approached OTRCH with the idea to use the buildings for a project that could benefit the neighborhood's low-income and homeless people.

"This where a lot of these guys – and some women – have been living," Allan says. This is their home. To us, it's nice that they can stay in their community. You would want that too."

Allan says that it's much better than the alternative.

"What we're saying is that, right now, a lot of them are staying in Washington Park and sleeping there," she says. "And so this will get some of them out of that situation."

In addition to OTRCH, development partners include 3CDC, Partnership Center Ltd, glaserworks, HGC Construction, and the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Getting City buy-in

OTRCH is seeking $1.45 million in federal HOME funds from the City, the only remaining funding required to get the project going.

The funding would be transferred from three accounts: $1.23 million from HOME project account "Mixed Income Housing Development Public Infrastructure", $154,000 from HOME project account "Strategic Housing Initiatives '06", and $63,000 from HOME project account "McMicken Transitional".

The ordinance allowing the funding is currently in council's Finance Committee.

"It's been kind of political because there are some council members who don't necessarily want this to be located there," Allan says. "So we're trying to meet with each of the council members to get their support. It's such a crucial neighborhood, such an important neighborhood. You have so many varying interests."

But she does realize that it's a hard concept to sell.

"Because this is such a new concept, and, we would say very progressive, there's been some resistance," Allan says. "Because I think, when people hear it, they're like, 'Well, what is that? They can drink? That doesn't make good sense.' I guess it's counter-intuitive to people. But we're not just pulling this out of the air. It's proven to work."

Allan adds that the funding process also been held up by zoning, because of OTRCH's plan to include five ADA-compliant apartments on the first floor.

"We had gotten appropriate use on it, but since then the Planning Department has said, 'Well, we're not really sure if this is an appropriate use,'" Allan says.

All of the other funding is in place, including money from State of Ohio Housing Development Gap Financing, Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati, a Cincinnati/Hamilton County Continuum of Care Samaritan Initiative Grant, Spirit of America National Bank, and a small private grant.

"We're ready to start," Allan says. "We have all of our development plans in place. We're working with HGC, they're our general contractor. We're ready to go to start demo."

Once demolition starts, it would take approximately one year to complete the project, Allan says.