A few months ago, Janet Spillan told her story of homelessness to middle school students at Ellicott Middle School; The Baltimore Sun reported on the story in October 2015. It was an effort to put a face on the problem of homelessness, as well as to kick off a fundraising campaign for Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, typically categorized as a homeless shelter, although it is much more.

Spillan’s story was not particularly unique: After several episodes of unemployment and a divorce, and with no family supports, she was forced to leave her Columbia home after 18 years and began living in her car until eventually finding a bed at Grassroots’ shelter. Her story is not one of disability, substance abuse or mental illness — things most commonly associated with homelessness. Her story is one of unfortunate circumstances.

This Could Be You

Most people are aware of homelessness, but not that they may be one setback away from experiencing it for themselves. With housing costs on the rise and wages stagnant, a minimum wage worker in Maryland would have to put in 100 hours a week to afford an average two-bedroom apartment (according to National Low Income Housing Coalition).

Most people also are unaware, particularly in Howard County, and in spite of initiatives such as the Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency, Continuum of Care, and the network of providers dedicated to preventing and fighting it every day, that homelessness remains a problem in every community and that it is here, today.

The federal government took a major step in the fight against homelessness on Dec. 14, 2014, when the 113th Congress, 2D Session, passed H.R. 2790 that authorizes “private nonprofit organizations to administer permanent housing rental assistance provided through the Continuum of Care Program under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and for other purposes.” This placed more control in the hands of the nonprofit community to address the problem of homelessness head on with housing, specifically, permanent supportive housing.

Support Is Key

Permanent supportive housing programs provide tailored supports and rental subsidies for households to allow them to obtain and maintain stable housing. Supportive housing is a best practice for ending chronic homelessness.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), one is considered chronically homeless when the person has been homeless for a total of 12 months, or has a diagnosed disability and has experienced a homeless episode four times in three years.

Research shows that by providing someone with a place to live and support services, that person’s ability to achieve and maintain stability can be realized while remaining in his or her community. Receiving only housing, without support services, results in dependence upon emergency services like hospitals, emergency crisis shelters, food banks, etc., which are expensive to both the system and to taxpayers and do not resolve the problem of homelessness.

Nationwide, numerous studies show that supportive housing works — and is a cost-effective method — for ending homelessness for the chronically homeless. Despite the recognition that a shortage of supportive housing units and programs exists, communities across the United States are charged with ending chronic homelessness by 2017. They will accomplish this largely through creative partnerships and funding approaches to bring more supportive housing to their communities.

Preventative Measures

Howard County has been addressing the problem of homelessness in exactly this way, through a collaborative network of providers and stakeholders.

Humanim Inc., one such provider, takes the prevention and housing approach where prevention services are provided to those who are currently housed, but due to circumstance and disability, are more vulnerable to losing it. The Supported Living Program is one such prevention program targeting adults with chronic and persistent mental illness (CPMI) who have obtained their own housing.

Humanim provides services that are aimed at keeping these individuals autonomous, independent and housed in the community. Humanim’s Community Housing Programs provide housing and intensive support services to adults with CPMI. These programs teach independent living skills and facilitate access to evidence-based employment services, with the goal of obtaining permanent housing for these individuals and promoting self-sufficiency.

There is a specialty program within Community Housing that focuses on the needs of emerging adults (individuals 17 to 25 years of age) and the unique challenges of coming into adulthood with CPMI.

Humanim became the sub-recipient of the Permanent Supportive Housing Program in Howard County in July 2015. This program involves the administration of both rental assistance and support services to chronically homeless individuals identified by the Howard County Continuum of Care. In this capacity, Humanim secures housing and support services for 35 individuals and families.

Additionally, Humanim provides support services to identify potential vulnerabilities to homelessness, then provides wrap-around services to address and minimize those vulnerabilities, thereby significantly decreasing additional episodes of homelessness.

Humanim is only one provider, one piece, in a system of care to prevent and address homelessness in Howard County. The first point of entry into the Howard County Continuum of Care (CoC) for homelessness services is Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, 410-531-6677.

Jesse Guercio is director of Behavioral Health Service for Humanim Inc. He can be reached at 410-381-1500. Michelle Hippert is manager of the Howard County Continuum of Care, Department of Citizen Services. She can be reached at 410-313-5971. Kara Zoolakis is manager of the Supported Living and McKinney Housing Programs for Humanim Inc. She can be reached at 410-381-7171.