Vern Van Winkle was one of the first residents of Clare’s Place, a supportive housing complex that opened in the summer of 2019. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald file photo)

Vern Van Winkle was one of the first residents of Clare’s Place, a supportive housing complex that opened in the summer of 2019. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Clare’s Place shows success of supportive housing

The apartments’ residents have a stable home and are using it to improve their lives.

By The Herald Editorial Board

There is no substitute for having a place to call home, says Alison Ahlgrim.

Ahlgrim is director of program services for Clare’s Place in Everett and Sebastian Place in Lynnwood, permanent low-barrier supportive housing programs operated by Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services.

A homeless person might have access to aid in the way of food and even shelter for the night, but without a place of their own — somewhere to prepare their own meals, keep their belongings, an address to receive mail, the safety of a lock on the door — it’s nearly impossible, Ahlgrim said, for anyone to confront the problems common to those who have lived with homelessness, including chronic physical ailments, substance abuse and addiction, mental health challenges and lack of living and social skills.

“In all of my nonprofit work, it became clear to me that housing is very essential and crucial to your functioning as a human with dignity and ability to live life and have quality of life,” Ahlgrim said recently, sitting in the courtyard garden at Clare’s Place, where residents tend flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. “When people are housed, all these other issues and problems tend to start falling away.”

Clare’s Place was among the first such low-barrier supportive housing program in Everett to welcome tenants into its 55 studio and 10 one-bedroom apartments in 2019. Others that opened that year were Cocoon House’s Hub, providing 40 housing units to youths and young adults; and Housing Hope’s HopeWorks Station II, with 65 units for families and individuals transitioning out of homelessness.

Launched with the transfer of land near a city fire training facility off Evergreen Way then owned by the City of Everett in 2016, the $10.5 million project was built by the Catholic housing agency with the aid of grant funding. These early efforts have been followed by others, including Everett’s pallet shelter village, which provides simple but private one-room shelters near the Everett Gospel Mission and recent plans to open a second pallet site elsewhere in the city.

More recently, the Snohomish County Council has voted to use nearly $20 million in federal covid aid funding to purchase two motels — a 74-unit motel near Everett Mall and a 55-unit motel on Highway 99 in Edmonds — which will be used for low-barrier housing for those experiencing chronic homelessness and providing “wrap-around services,” including food assistance, medical aid, behavioral health support, addiction treatment and job training.

Even acknowledging that such aid is more cost-effective than continuing to incur expenses to the public that result from chronic homelessness from police and aid calls, emergency room use, court use, incarceration and more, the investment in facilities and the ongoing commitment to programs warrant a look at what one of the first of these programs has accomplished.

Clare’s Place, Ahlgrim said, has provided rental housing as well as supportive services that include access to counseling and a medical office and provider who can administer wound care and other medical treatment, behavioral health treatment and medication-assisted treatment for addiction, such as Suboxone.

Most residents are individuals, but there are eight or nine couples and two mothers with children.

All tenants are there on leases, paying no more than 30 percent of their income, typically from Social Security. There are basic rules of behavior, but no requirement for sobriety. Most, she said, are not sober, but all have reduced their use of drugs or alcohol.

All of its residents had been homeless for at least a year, Ahlgrim said, but some for as long as 10 years, and all dealing with physical disabilities, mental health challenges, substance abuse issues or a combination of challenges.

“Their time on the street, alone, has caused or contributed and exacerbated those issues,” she said.

The pandemic, which hit shortly after Clare’s Place moved in all residents, complicated access to some services. Some community outreach programs, recreation and cooking and other classes were placed on hold until recently, and while the lockdown excluded visitors it helped generate a sense of community and shared purpose among residents.

One resident, Ahlgrim said, owns a van and has become a one-person shuttle service, taking other residents to appointments to receive methadone treatments.

“If you weren’t down at the van, someone was knocking on your door. People are looking out for each other,” she said.

Not all residents participate in treatment programs, Ahlgrim said, but the point is to provide stability and access to those programs.

“People are more able to follow through with methadone once they are housed. When you’re on the streets it’s hard to keep appointments,” she said.

The level of success for each resident is individual, depending on the length of homelessness and their own challenges, but stable housing, she said has made a marked difference between when residents first moved in and now.

About 85 percent of those who arrived in 2019 remain at Clare’s Place. There were three evictions since 2019 that resulted from behavior issues and threats of violence. And some residents, suffering from physical ailments, have died. A few, even with the difficulties in finding affordable market-rate housing, have moved on.

But it’s a long process, she said. The rule of thumb, Ahlgrim said, is that for every year on the streets, it takes a year of supportive housing to reach the point of being able to move on.

But the success she has seen convinces her of the need for more low-barrier supportive housing in the county. She is equally supportive of the county’s purchase of the two hotels, potentially for shorter-term housing and a step toward placement at Clare’s Place or similar programs, as it can work to prepare people and determine when they are ready to move on to a more permanent setting.

“When someone’s been on the streets for years, it can be hard to adjust to life off the streets, and many are not able to function in the community. They are not able to follow rules, to maintain the cleanliness and safety of an apartment” she said. “So if you’re able to get those people housed as quickly as possible, that’s a huge benefit to those people.”

It is a learning process, but the residents of Clare’s Place and similar programs are back in control of their own lives.

“We walk with them on their journey, but they’re in the driver’s seat. They have the agency and control. Sometimes they make choices that are not in their best interests, and we can really wish they’d made a different one, but it’s their life.”

But when they need help to pick up the pieces after a poor decision, she said, they have the stability to learn from those mistakes.

“There are people who will flame out and won’t succeed,” Ahlgrim said. “But a majority are being helped.”

“You can’t make progress on anything without a safe, stable place to sleep.”

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