LONGVIEW — A pilot project that is testing the controversial idea that homeless people need shelter before they’re asked to stay clean and sober is struggling.
Nine months since Lower Columbia Community Action Program housed six homeless men in a home on 33rd Avenue in Longview, the original case manager has been fired, four clients have spent time in jail, thefts in the home are common, guests have reportedly brought drugs into the home and residents are at odds with a stricter new manager.
Despite the struggles, officials still have faith in the $96,000 county-funded project, which is known as the Permanent Support Housing Program.
“The central premise is that housing is part of recovery and people need a stable place to live in order to recover from whatever situations brought them to be homeless,” said Melissa Taylor, planning manager for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments, which oversees the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Critics, though, say this approach coddles drug abusers.
CAP Executive Director Ilona Kirby says the program already is paying for itself through reduced taxpayer expenditures on the homeless, but it takes a long time to rehabilitate the chronically homeless.
“Anyone who has tried to break a longtime habit … knows that it takes real work. The changes that need to be made here are in behaviors that were habituated over long periods of time, so change will not happen overnight,” Kirby said last week.
Residents and Kirby say the biggest problem is that guests bring drugs into the house for overnight stays, and they’re stealing, too. (Under the program’s design, no supervisor lives in the house, but the case manager makes multiple day-checks only during the week. Anna Leslie, the former case manager, did make spot checks on nights and weekends. The new case manager says he plans to continue those checks.)
Last month the living room TV disappeared, said resident Ken Falter, 50. Other residents say dishes and dinnerware vanish and then resurface several days later.
Ottis Pippin, 50, who said he was booted out of the home for drug possession there, said other residents stole a laptop and jewelry from his room. He also said guests often would come into the home and do drugs.
Police jailed one former resident after they caught him with drugs in the house, said Anna Leslie, the program’s original case manager. Two residents spent time in jail for a fight that broke out in the house and another did jail time for violating a protection order, Leslie said.
Only one of these four men still live in the house, and at least one of them is homeless again. A total of 10 men have lived in the house, but no more than six at a time, the current number.
The shelter became a nuisance to the owners of Dry Creek Apartments across the street from the CAP home. Leslie said she would get calls from the apartment building’s management at 4 a.m. saying guests of the house were using their parking space and making noise.
“Low barrier housing is a risky venture for all involved and that includes the surrounding neighborhoods. In the correct setting with the proper oversight I believe it can be successful,” said Raymond Pyle, which owns the company that manages Dry Creek.
Pyle said some of the problems have eased in the two weeks since Tom Buttemiller took over as case manager for Leslie, whom CAP fired in April. (CAP won’t discuss her termination, which Leslie says were because of her complaints over CAP’s handling of its housing program for disabled people.)
Residents have, indeed, complained about the way Buttemiller enforces the house rules, which bar drugs and prohibit guests from staying past 10 p.m. The tension goes right to one of the major questions raised about low-barrier housing: How much supervision, and how much coercion there be?
Jon Osborne, 52, one of the original six members of the house, said “things were more relaxed when Anna was around. Now they are down our throats.”
Osborne and Falter say an interim case manager had ordered them, under threat of eviction, to get drug evaluations after their guests were found to be using drugs.
“When we moved in it was stated that a drug evaluation wasn’t a requirement. If they’re not following the guidelines of the program then they are not doing their job,” Falter said.
Requiring such evaluations is against low-barrier housing policy, said Leslie, the former case manager.
“With the drug evaluation being required this program becomes the same as all the other programs. If you’re going to force people into something, then it’s not permanent support housing anymore,” Leslie said.
Buttemiller confirmed that both men have appointments to get drug evaluations, but the tests are not mandatory, he said.
“If they don’t go I will ask them if they’re interested in doing another one later on or I’ll discuss other alternatives to working on their barriers. If they say no and don’t want to do that, that is fine for the time being and I can address it in a different way. My job is to keep them housed and work with them on understanding and overcoming barriers,” Buttemiller said.
Kirby, the CAP director, said the program already is paying for itself. Each homeless person costs the public $40,500 annually for costs such as hospital visits, jail time, visits to food banks and other services. Keeping people housed, such as in the Permanent Support Housing Program, costs $16,000 a person, Kirby said.
Housing first program studies have shown it takes at least a year to see a chronically homeless person make progress, Kirby said. Previous housing first programs in Portland and Seattle have proved successful.
Regardless of their current barriers, Buttemiller believes the men will reach their goals of finding work within the community.
“Most of the folks here have a goal of wanting to go back to work, and I have a history of helping folks get back in the work force and experience with individuals with low-barriers,” he said.