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Housing First in Huntington, West Virginia
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Prestera Center for Mental Health Services, Inc., is located in Huntington and other sites in the southwestern region of West Virginia. They are a grantee of SAMHSA’s Services in Supportive Housing (SSH) program, receiving their grant in 2008. Having adopted the Housing First philosophy with their Continuum of Care (CoC), they meet the housing and service needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in their community who are most “critically” in need.
Housing First in Huntington, West Virginia

“We don’t want to lose a single one of our Housing First people; we want them all to succeed,” says Francie Buchanan, one of a group of local service providers who have formed a Housing First team in Huntington, West Virginia. For them, success is defined as staying housed, permanently. John Hampton, their PATH Outreach Specialist, heads the team. It is a subcommittee of the regional Continuum of Care (CoC) and meets weekly for several hours to review the status of their 150+ Housing First households. Team members discuss the problems and issues of clients, of landlords, of how to access resources and income benefits for clients, and the ways in which they can help their clients stay “on track” with the overall program goal—for individuals who are experiencing homeless and who have disabilities to obtain and remain in housing.

The CoC adopted the Housing First philosophy in 2006 after visiting a similar program. According to John Hampton, who refers the majority of his clients to Housing First programs, “The purpose of our program is to meet the housing and service needs of the most ‘critical’ homeless people—those with disabilities who have been homeless for a long time and who have multiple problems, including complex behavioral health issues.” The program surrounds clients with services after housing them. There are only three “rules”: be a good neighbor, protect the property you live in, and engage with your Housing First case manager.

The Housing First program has operated for six years, which allows for comparisons with client outcomes before the program was implemented. John says, “We used to have a revolving door in our homeless programs, with clients getting kicked out, mostly for substance use, and coming back to shelter after a period outdoors. Now the average time clients are in the program before reaching sobriety is 1.5 years, but they’re remaining housed during that period.” And even though relapse is still common, John says Housing First clients relapse fewer times, for shorter periods of time, and remain sober longer than clients in other settings.

Data from the local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) show that the vast majority of Housing First clients remain housed. John attributes this success rate to reduced stress and worry among their clients, a stable place to live when entering the job market, and not having to “jump through hoops” to keep their housing. Eventually, John says, all clients take advantage of the available services as they begin to get their lives together again. He shares the story of his client, “Kent,” who illustrates the program’s track record.

Kent used to be “passed out cold” most days on the front steps leading to the local day shelter. However, he did not access the shelter’s available services or interact with staff. John was patient. He gave Kent time, explained his different options, and let him know that if he would be willing to enter the Housing First program, he could receive housing. “The clients trust John,” Francie says, “because he works with them, no strings attached.” Kent entered the program and began meeting with his case manager weekly, setting goals that would connect him to various services. Eventually he asked for help with his “drinking problem” and was connected to a local program, where he stayed for some months. When he returned home, he got a job as a security guard at a local company. Today he is the manager of that company. According to Francie, “Kent is a poster child for the Housing First program.”

Another client, “Phoebe,” had an equally notable outcome. She is a beautiful young woman who used to walk the streets at night, and slept in a tent on the banks of the Ohio River with her two small children and their father. “That was a very abusive relationship, but Phoebe was used to that, having been abused most of her life by various people,” Francie relates. Her response to trauma was profound. She was deep into abusing cocaine and her toddlers were being traumatized by this precarious lifestyle. Phoebe’s entry to the program happened after the state took her kids; the children were soon adopted by Phoebe’s parents and are now in a stable and loving long-term home. Phoebe sometimes takes advantage of life skills trainings, meets with her case manager, and she has stopped abusing substances. Today she lives safely in her apartment, stays off the streets, and visits her children regularly.

Members of the CoC are committed to the Housing First model; all new housing programs in the CoC use this model. “We believe it is the best way to get results in the long run,” says Francie. “It just makes all the sense in the world to get people housed as fast as you can, and work with them afterwards to get their problems addressed.” The CoC members believe the big difference in their program is the high degree of wrap-around services and weekly team meetings that ensure clients are aware of, and able to access, the services they need most. Each Housing First client is offered every chance to improve their health, employment options, and to receive the benefits for which they are entitled. “Our case managers don’t give up on folks; they just keep going until everything is working for our clients,” John says.

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