Closing Cases is Not in Our Vocabulary
Mollie Lowery, Program Director of Housing Works in Los Angeles, understands that at the core of outreach to human beings who are experiencing homelessness is patience; there is a slow process of trust building that may take months. After years of experience with the LAMP Community, much of Mollie’s work is informed by the people who have lived on the streets and who have worked with her side by side to change the face of homelessness. Mollie’s story of “Maria” exemplifies the philosophy of Housing Works and her leadership of this organization.
Maria (not her real name) was 69 at the time. She had been on the streets for 16 years. Several outreach teams in the L.A. area tried to convince her to come in from the niche she had found, a place she felt safe, but they were unsuccessful. Maria trusted no one. Her refrain: “I am not leaving here until I have my own place.” She knew that everyone deserves a home to call their own. Maria had found a place outdoors where she found some sense of safety. Homelessness is traumatic, and experiences while homeless can change someone’s view of safety. Different people find safety in different places. That said, most people do not want to be homeless. The outreach workers felt sorry for Maria because she was elderly and they had an agenda because they were making assumptions.
Mollie Lowery, a founder of the LAMP Community on Skid Row and the current Program Director of Housing Works, reached out to Maria after others had found little success. “I made the observation that Maria had figured out how to survive, but was becoming more vulnerable each day. She was subject to the stressors of street life and was enduring physical disability issues,” said Mollie. Mollie knew that her team needed to find housing quickly.
Mollie’s team had challenges when working with Maria. A voucher would take weeks to obtain. Maria was not initially willing to provide the information they needed to complete that process, so they sat side by side with her on the street corner that she chose until she trusted the Housing Works outreach team. This took hours and days. They filled out the application with Maria together. When they told Maria that part of the process would include getting an identification card, Maria responded emphatically, ‘”I will do that. I do not want you to do that with me.” Mollie bargained with Maria, offering that they would provide transportation to the DMV if for any reason she had trouble completing this task. When Maria did not get the ID card, she held to her promise and allowed Mollie and her colleague to take her to the DMV. They stayed outside. When Maria returned with a slip of paper and asked what she could use for an address, Maria took a huge step in trust and agreed to use the Housing Works address so she could complete the process.
Maria continued to camp on the sidewalk several weeks into the housing voucher application process. She insisted she was safe at her “spot;” safer than any temporary shelter or motel. One early morning as Maria and Mollie were talking, the police rolled up and gave Maria an ultimatum—move off the sidewalk or go to jail. They were polite but firm. Maria looked at Mollie, and back at the police, and announced that she was going with Mollie to a motel. Once she agreed to stay in the motel, Maria became invested in the idea of what it meant to have some privacy and a bathroom, and began working with the team to find permanent housing.
“We didn’t push against living on the street again, or living in the motel. The key is offering choices and never saying no. It is important to give people a lot of room to decide for themselves. This is dignity,” says Mollie, a longtime veteran of understanding the importance of dignity and equality. Eventually Maria chose an apartment unit in a new senior living building just down the street from her old sidewalk spot. On her first day she refused furniture because she was certain she would never stay, but she did stay. She stayed to cook her own meals, buy her own food, and live a life in her own home.
Maria experiences what she calls a “syndrome” that comes from living a stressful life on the streets. She does not call it mental illness. Nor does she identify as mentally ill. Housing Works deliberately accessed a Section 8 voucher for Maria, rather than any voucher or housing placement that requires tenants to have a mental health diagnosis or disabling condition, to accommodate her. Maria would have it no other way—and she is doing just fine taking care of herself and her home.
The willingness of Housing Works to meet people where they are at and to find the housing they need and want is a testament to the underlying philosophy that moves like wind through the organization. Outreach is the centerpiece to housing for working with people who are experiencing homelessness, mental illness, and substance use. “The foundation,” says Mollie, “is trust and the relationship that builds from that trust. We are human beings connecting with each other and helping with the resources that we bring to an acute cycle of mental illness or addiction.”
Housing Works has a 98 percent retention rate for housing. They are tenant based and tenant centered, as the story of Maria reflects. This may mean relocating people to help identify new housing where they can genuinely thrive. Housing Works follows tenants wherever, and for as long as it takes. “Closing cases is not in our vocabulary,” says Mollie.
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