Photos by Jon Forness, courtesy of United Way of Cass-Clay
Feature photo: Dewayne talks with his housing navigator, Amber Larson. One year ago, Dewayne was trapped in the cycle of homelessness and staying in shelters and sleeping on the streets of Fargo. Thanks to United Way donors, there are now a team of housing navigators like Larson working with chronically homeless individuals like Dewayne.
When you think of the word “innovative,” what topics come to mind? One would guess that words such as “non-profit,” “philanthropy,” “social change” and “homelessness” may not be at the top of the list. But here in our community, your local United Way is taking an innovative approach to the long-standing issue of homelessness. Thanks to support from our community, a newly formed team of housing navigators is changing the way people, organizations and systems work together when it comes to helping people like Dewayne.
When I arrived at Dewayne’s apartment this summer, he was brimming with pride as he gave us a tour of his small home. The last stop was the kitchen, where he pointed out a calendar with his work schedule, goals and upcoming visitations with his son. As I listened to him talk about his goals to further his career and earn a college degree, it was hard to imagine that just one year ago, Dewayne was homeless and arrested for panhandling on a street corner in Fargo with nowhere to go, no home, no job and just the clothes on his back.
“I’d lost everything. I didn’t have any hope. I had given up,” he said.
Earlier that year, Dewayne and his life partner, Lisa, gave birth to a baby boy. After working toward overcoming alcoholism and addiction, over Thanksgiving they relapsed and were arrested on suspicion of child neglect. Days after the arrest, Lisa suffered a medical emergency that left her on life support before passing away in December. Not only had Dewayne lost his life partner, but also custody of his 2-month-old son.
“Once you lose everything, you lose hope. But I wanted my son back. That was the most important thing,” said Dewayne.
When Dewayne got out of jail, like many individuals in our community, he fell back into the same cycle of homelessness and addiction–staying in shelters, passing out on the sidewalks of Fargo and waking up in the emergency room, until one day he woke up and Amber Larson, a housing navigator, was standing over him.
“When I began working with Dewayne, I had to literally pick him up off of the street. He said to me, ‘I can’t believe you came here.’ That is what people need–connection to the community. They need to know someone will be there for them,” said Larson.
That is exactly what United Way and the housing navigators are providing. Thanks to United Way, housing navigators like Larson are now working every day in our community to provide support to those who are chronically homeless with a goal of helping them to remove the barriers to attaining and retaining stable housing.
“When people like Dewayne have a stable home and their basic needs are met, they can move out of crisis mode and move their life forward,” said Larson.
And that is exactly what Dewayne is doing. When I met with Dewayne and his housing navigator recently, our meeting ended with him carrying donations of toys and baby clothes to his car as he excitedly told me that he is close to regaining custody of his son and that his job is going well.
While we as human beings care deeply about seeing people like Dewayne be successful and break free from that cycle of homelessness, it is much more than doing the right thing as a community–it affects all of us as taxpayers and impacts the economic well-being of our community.
Jesseca White, a downtown resource officer with the Fargo Police Department, sees first-hand the impact of United Way’s new investment in housing navigators and describes it through an individual named “Timothy.” “When Timothy was homeless, we [police officers] dealt with him hundreds of times in one year. After Timothy was housed, we dealt with him less than 30 times per year—think about the cost savings to our community,” said White.
Having housing navigators available in our community means we are seeing a reduction in shelter stays, detox visits, police calls and emergency room visits—and United Way is measuring the impact.
“I think we all have our share of bad days, but the people United Way is helping have had bad weeks, years and even lives,” she said. We asked her what her secret was in remaining optimistic and she quickly said empathy. Empathy has the ability to bring our community together to continue to support solutions to homelessness that are working–like housing navigation.
United Way is focused on changing the way we address challenging issues like homelessness, hunger, poverty and mental health. We’re bringing the right partners together to tackle the source and root cause, not just the symptoms. We are asking the community to “be a force for good.” “For good” means that we not only want to make a positive impact, but we want to solve issues like homelessness permanently.
Thanks to Larson, Dewayne’s life has been changed for good. The impact of a housing navigator goes beyond the people they help. Today, Dewayne is a successful member of our community, a part of our workforce, and is destined to achieve his goal of being a good example for his son. He is a “force for good” that impacts us all.
What is Housing First?
Housing First is an approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. This approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before they can be successful in getting a job, budgeting properly or attending to substance use issues.
How is Housing First different from other approaches?
Housing First does not require people experiencing homelessness to address all of their problems or to graduate through a series of service programs before they can access housing. The Housing First approach views housing as the foundation for life improvement and enables access to permanent housing without prerequisites or conditions beyond those of a typical renter. Housing navigators offer supportive services to help people with housing stability and individual well-being so they can obtain and retain housing.
Does Housing First Work?
Housing First is cost-efficient. When housing navigators provide access to housing, this results in cost savings for communities because housed people are less likely to use emergency services, hospitals, jails and emergency shelters than those who are homeless. One study found an average cost savings on emergency services of $31,545 per person housed in a Housing First program over the course of two years. In our local community, after housing navigators provided services to two individuals, after six months they reported more than $37,000 in cost savings to our community because of decreased service utilization.