When Pamela Jenkins received her house keys, she decided that nobody would kick her out.
After years of chronic homelessness, she now resides in a furnished apartment in Northeast Philadelphia.
For Jenkins (above), Pathways to Housing PA has replaced uncertainty with stability. Unlike shelters and transitional housing facilities, the organization’s “housing first” model does not require preconditions such as sobriety, absence of a criminal record or independence. Instead, it aims to provide a foundation for the chronically homeless to progress toward wellness.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines a chronically homeless person as an individual who has been homeless for at least one year, or an adult who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness within three years and has a disability.
Since the 2008 introduction of the “housing first” model to Philadelphia, Pathways to Housing PA has assisted more than 430 people like Jenkins. With the guidance of Pathways, 89 percent of clients retain their housing after five years.
Rent at a Pathways-provided home is 30 percent of an individual’s income. The organization emphasizes that the rate remains static even if the resident has no income.
“We take people directly from the streets and move them right into apartments,” said Jessie Marushak, Pathways’ director of development. “All they agree to do is to be seen from us twice a month, and from there they can thrive.”
“Housing first” reverses the “treatment first” protocol that erects barriers to shelters and transitional living facilities for the chronically homeless. Mental illness and substance abuse can limit admittance prospects and lengthen stays within the shelter system.
According to HUD’s January 2014 Point in Time survey, the majority of the chronically homeless – 63 percent – went unsheltered. More than 23 percent of homeless individuals were chronically homeless, the survey found.
Jenkins said that outside of the shelter system, she constantly had to worry about where she could safely sleep. She worried about where she was going to eat and shower, and how she would come by her next source of income.
“I was homeless for four years,” Jenkins said. “Incarceration. Addiction. Living place-to-place. Just not wanting to be responsible anymore. I gave up. I stopping taking medications – psych meds – [and] my other medications for my health issues. … Just being glad that if I was wanted or something, I got locked up and got three meals and a cot – a warm place to stay at.”
Pathways provides medical care and psychiatric counseling at its Logan location and has struck a partnership with Thomas Jefferson University’s Department of Family and Community Medicine to provide comprehensive health care. Around-the-clock support is available to all Pathways clients.
Jenkins’ keys gave her access to more than just a permanent residence. Pathways’ intervention liberated her from myriad cycles of imprisonment: law enforcement, circumstance, substance abuse and personal trauma.
A 2010 study conducted by Project HOME found that rapid rehousing solutions benefit the city as well as the individual. The report cited annual savings of more than $7,700 per person by not tapping publicly funded services such as modes of emergency care and by not engaging the criminal justice system.
The diminished interaction with law enforcement has many positive implications.
Rajni Shankar-Brown, Stetson University professor and Jessie Ball duPont chair of social justice education, said, “[T]he criminalization of homelessness is a huge issue … which has distressing implications ranging from added financial hardship, increased discriminatory acts and negative effects on social-emotional wellbeing.”
However, Philadelphia faces a unique challenge.
Research suggests the majority of the chronically homeless in Philadelphia qualify due to episodes of homelessness instead of being homeless for a year or longer.
“I stayed with friends when I could,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t care for the shelter system too much. … [Shelter] staff members can become argumentative; you might meet some staff who doesn’t like you and try to get you put out. There’s stealing; you might run into an old enemy, or there might be fighting.”
Experiences like Jenkins’ make the true number of chronically homeless difficult to tally.
To reach people in these circumstances, Pathways coordinates with Project HOME’s Outreach Coordination Center, whose workers build relationships and gradually guide the homeless toward accepting help.
“There is a master list of folks who have been chronically homeless for the longest amount of time and that is who we serve first,” Marushak said. “We work directly with the city to make sure we’re serving the people who are most in need of care.”
Emotional trauma can also cause aversion to crowded living arrangements, exacerbating the problem of episodic chronic homelessness.
Forty percent of the people helped by Pathways are veterans, and post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent among the cohort.
“Something people don’t realize is that folks serve our country, they come home, and many of them don’t have a home,” Marushak said. “It’s really hard for people who have been in that type of environment to reenter society. Many suffer from PTSD.”
She added that somebody suffering from PTSD has trouble coping in a shelter atmosphere.
In December 2014, Pathways to Housing PA opened Philadelphia’s first furniture bank. The bank receives donations from individuals, businesses, hotels and schools to provide to the newly housed.
According to an announcement made on the organization’s seventh anniversary, Pathways to Housing PA has tripled in size and places more chronically homeless people in housing than Philadelphia’s other providers.
“Life is finally settled now,” Jenkins said. “I’ve been with Pathways seven months.”
While giving a tour of her new home, she said the transition from homelessness was “beautiful.”
“The biggest part was people telling me to get out,” she said. “Now I have my own keys.”
– Text, images and video by Jake Pilkington