Rhonda Messal was homeless in Eugene for three years, camping under carports and couch-surfing when people would let her stay in their homes.
One winter, she lived in an unheated car, surviving off ramen she bought with her food stamps; she’d heat it up in gas-station microwaves. She’d sleep in Walmart parking lots or anywhere else she could park for a night without getting harassed. She used drugs to find brief moments of comfort.
After a while, she got into a recovery house and got clean from drugs. Eventually, she got a job. But with paying for her kids and the rent at the halfway house, she could never save up enough money for a security deposit. This is understandable in a city where median monthly rent for a household is more than $1,000, and which has, by some studies, the highest rate of homelessness per capita of any city its size in the U.S.
So Messal couldn’t get out of homelessness on her own, even though she was clean and sober, and even though she had a job. Women around her would win housing voucher lotteries or be recruited for programs, and some were getting permanent homes, but it was never her.
But then one day in 2017, Messal got a call. She’d been chosen to be one of the 33 chronically homeless people to be part of the Madrone Program, a partnership between the Lane County housing authority, aka Homes for Good, and ShelterCare, a local housing and services nonprofit.
Chad Ward, a housing specialist from ShelterCare, helped Messal get out of the recovery house and into a real home — a house with bedrooms for each of her three children where she could continue to get services through ShelterCare for her addiction and mental health issues.
She remembers the first time she got to her house. Ward was there already with a welcome package — pillows, blankets, sheets, towels, shower curtains, pots and pans, cutlery — everything she needed to get started.
“It was like Christmas — the best Christmas you could ever experience,” Messal says. “It was the biggest moment of my life.”
She could shower regularly now. She could sleep soundly with her kids behind locked doors. She could cook food besides ramen.
“The basic things that most people take for granted are so heartwarming for me. Until you don’t have those things, you don’t realize how important they are,” she says. “If there’s one thing I’ll never ever, ever take for granted, it’s housing.”
Getting a brand new start
While many people take housing for granted, there are at least 9,600 homeless people in Lane County, according to county data, and 14 out of 1,000 people in Eugene are homeless. These numbers are double or triple the national averages, depending on the statistics used. The rate of chronic homelessness, which is defined as being homeless for more than a year, is also higher in Lane County compared to the rest of the country. Thirty-five percent of the Lane County homeless population is chronically homeless, compared with 25 percent of the nation’s homeless population.
In Eugene and Lane County, taxpayers pay for chronically homeless people in a variety of ways. Financially secure residents cover the costs of aiding chronically homeless people who can’t pay for ambulance rides when they get into emergency medical situations, a common occurrence for those who live on the street and have chronic health conditions. Housed people pay high rates for emergency room visits to cover visits by chronically homeless people who can’t pay. And tax dollars are used to pay for police to cite, arrest and jail homeless people for trespassing and for illegal activities related to mental health and substance abuse issues.
Chronically homeless people often have mental and physical health issues that get them regularly arrested, transported by ambulances and put in jails and hospitals. These cycles cost hospital and government systems thousands, sometimes millions of dollars per person over their lifetimes. It appears that most of these costs in Lane County and Eugene are ones that local government could dramatically reduce if they changed homelessness policies.
Often, dealing with chronically homeless people who are on the street costs systems more money than it would cost to simply give them full housing and health services, studies in numerous U.S. cities show. Lane County and the city of Eugene have picked up on these studies and are planning on creating about 350 units of housing with supportive services for chronically homeless residents of the area within the next five years. While city and county officials say this is a feasible goal, the county has failed to meet similar goals in the past, and they say it will take funding from the federal government, collaboration with local nonprofits and support from Lane County residents to make happen.
If the goal is met, Lane County taxpayers and businesses could save millions of dollars and hundreds of homeless people could be permanently housed, bringing the county one step closer toward effectively eliminating homelessness in the community.
Housing First, then everything else
What Messal received at ShelterCare is an example of permanent supportive housing (PSH), supplied with a Housing First philosophy.
PSH is housing, normally for chronically homeless people, that comes with supportive services like mental health and addiction treatment and anything else they need to thrive and stay housed. PSH is given with the understanding that residents might take years to move on to unsupported housing or might live in the PSH for the rest of their lives.
Housing First is the idea that when you’re trying to help out homeless people, you should give them housing first, then help them grow from there, even if they still have substance abuse issues. The Housing First model is an idea that’s radically different from many traditional housing philosophies, which create barriers to entry like being clean, sober or employed to be eligible for housing.
Housing First has high success rates in helping people move out of homelessness and is the accepted model among housing experts around the country. Experts see PSH as one of the most cost-effective solutions to chronic homelessness.
“Housing First as a model across the country, and in Canada as well, has proven to be much, much more cost effective than what we typically do, which does not provide the support,” says Sarai Johnson, the city and county’s joint housing and shelter strategist. “If we do nothing, it costs much more than to house somebody.”
The 1811 Eastlake project, a housing complex for 95 chronically homeless alcoholics in Seattle, saved $4 million per year in jail, emergency health and social service costs, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It also reduced drinking among the participants.
Another study, which was cited in a United States Interagency Council on Homelessness report endorsing the Housing First model, showed 1,000 homeless people who’d been put in PSH cost the public an average of nearly $30,000 less per person per year than 9,000 other surveyed homeless adults who lived on the street in Los Angeles.
“The most successful intervention for ending chronic homelessness is Permanent Supportive Housing,” the report says.
Although many people discuss how to address homelessness, Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis says housing experts know exactly how to meet the needs of homeless people through PSH and other strategies. The issue is getting enough money and land to fund expensive housing and services for them. Before she was mayor, Vinis worked as ShelterCare’s development director for nearly seven years.
“We know how to do this work,” she says. “We have the skills to do it. We have the experience to do it. We have the success record to do it. It’s just a matter of being able to do it at the scale that we really need.”
How PSH works in Lane County
There are around 500 housing units that could be considered PSH for chronically homeless people in Lane County, says Johnson, the housing and shelter strategist. She says this is not nearly enough to serve the needs of the county’s chronically homeless population.
Most of the funding for PSH in Lane County comes from various federal sources, like the Section 8 Housing Voucher Program. But in 2019, building PSH became a priority for the state of Oregon as well, says Kenny Lapoint, the spokesperson for Oregon Housing and Community Services.
In 2019, the state allocated $50 million toward building PSH, some of which is going directly to the low-income housing authority Homes for Good. The state’s goal is to fund the development of 1,000 new units of PSH in Oregon by 2024.
Hospitals and other health care providers could also be potential funders of PSH in Lane County and across the country. Homes for Good’s Commons on MLK project, the first large-scale PSH project being built in Lane County, which will be completed in February, is being partially funded by four Oregon health care organizations that donated a total of nearly $3 million to the project.
The Commons on MLK, near Autzen Stadium in Eugene, will house 51 chronically homeless people taken from something called the Frequent User System Engagement, a program that lists about 100 people whom the county has identified as using the most services and costing the system the most money. In addition to this list, the county has a separate centralized waitlist based on specific people’s need for PSH that has about 100 people on it.
Health care organizations can stand to gain from taking chronically homeless people off the street. Hospitals sometimes have to cover the costs of chronically homeless people who wind up in emergency rooms and later can’t cover the bill.
Hospitals and ambulance services can turn away people with minor health issues or injuries, but not those with serious issues that need immediate attention. This means chronically homeless people’s health issues often go untreated until they fall into the second category. These types of emergency health procedures are normally extremely expensive.
Oregon Housing and Community Services donated an additional $3 million to the Commons on MLK project. Once running, ShelterCare will provide on-site-24-hour physical and mental health services for the people who live there.
Homes for Good is creating a couple of other smaller projects that include PSH, but for now, most of the PSH units in Lane County are scattered throughout the community, not in designated PSH projects.
This is the model ShelterCare uses to provide its PSH. Dana Peterson, the organization’s housing services director, says ShelterCare administers services for about 150 PSH units in Lane County.
When ShelterCare gets open spots for PSH in its programs, it receives a name, normally from the centralized county waitlist. Then a housing specialist like Ward has to go track the person down.
Sometimes, the person will be in some kind of program or recovery house, as Messal was when Ward first contacted her. In these cases, Ward says it’s easy to find them.
Other times, the person on the list might be living in a tent without a phone. In these cases, Ward says he sometimes has to go to encampments and knock on tent doors to find them.
After he finds the people, he helps them get a home. ShelterCare sometimes pays for clients’ rental leases that are under the clients’ names. In other cases, ShelterCare directly leases rooms from property management companies and gives them to their clients.
The types of living situations that ShelterCare provides, where formerly chronically homeless people are living among people who were not recently homeless, can be good for clients because they don’t feel like they’re living in a housing project, or that they’re abnormal in any way, Petersen says.
But project-based PSH also has its benefits, like having centralized services and the 24-hour support staff that projects like The Commons on MLK will have.
Vinis says that both types of housing are needed. She says the idea is that people could graduate from intensive-care housing like the Commons on MLK to units like those that ShelterCare operates, which still come with some services, before moving to fully independent living.
Issues and solutions
Building PSH has been a priority for Lane County since 2016 and for the city of Eugene since 2018. The Lane County Poverty and Homelessness Board included creating 600 new units of PSH by 2021 as part of its 2016 Strategic Plan.
The Technical Assistance Collaborative’s 2018 Shelter Feasibility report for Lane County, a sweeping analysis of housing needs in the area which the county and city are using to shape their housing policy, recommended adding 350 additional units of PSH to the county system in three years.
Johnson says the county has created about 83 units of PSH since 2016, has 72 under construction and has concrete plans to make 86 more. County officials agree that they will fail to meet the 600-unit goal of the Poverty and Homelessness Board. They say that they will only meet the new 350 unit PSH goal if everything goes right.
The main barriers that made it difficult for the county to meet its previous PSH goals, and could stop the new goal from being met, are finding the right land and right funding for projects and finding landlords willing to work with chronically homeless tenants.
Finding the right land is difficult because land in Lane County, especially in Eugene, is expensive, says Jacob Fox, Homes for Good executive director. He says the Commons on MLK project was only able to be financed because the county donated the land.
Vinis says that there is land in Eugene that could be used for these types of projects. For example, she says Eugene could build PSH projects on parking lots, which she says we’ll need less of as the city becomes more dense and public transport improves.
But even in cases where county or city land could be used for PSH projects, neighborhood associations often fight the creation of projects in their neighborhoods, says Pat Farr, the Lane County commissioner representing north Eugene and longtime homeless advocate who serves on the Poverty and Homelessness Board.
He says that it can be especially difficult to garner public support for Housing First projects because they include residents who have serious behavioral and substance abuse issues.
“What makes that unpopular with some people is that we’re providing housing to people who are actively using drugs and alcohol, under the premise that they will seek treatment once they are in the housing,” Farr says.
He says that while neighborhood associations don’t have direct control over where a PSH project is placed, they can start information campaigns that can effectively stop the city from building in a given area.
Farr says while people in most Eugene neighborhoods support PSH as a concept, they normally don’t want it built in their neighborhoods. He believes that once people see completed Homes for Good projects like the Commons on MLK and another project being built for 15 families at 13th and Tyler, they will look more favorably on PSH projects. He says the projects being built in Lane County are clean and well regulated.
Sponsors Inc., an organization that provides programs similar to PSH for people coming out of prison, has projects around town that are often the newest and cleanest buildings in their neighborhoods.
For tenant-based vouchers, the type of vouchers that ShelterCare generally uses to house people, public perception of PSH is also key. Johnson says that right now, only 87 percent of the county’s PSH vouchers are being used because so many landlords are reluctant to rent to people who were chronically homeless.
Farr sees education and engagement with landlords and property owners as a solution to opposition from neighborhood associations and landlords’ reluctance to rent units for PSH.
Farr and Kris McAlister, the chair-elect of the Poverty and Homelessness Board, say that while there is a lot of federal funding for PSH, it sometimes comes so burdened with regulation that it’s extremely difficult to use.
For example, Farr says federally-funded PSH units are required to have two sinks in the kitchen, one for dishes, one for handwashing. And tiny homes where beds are in a loft are not eligible.
He says that relaxing some of these standards could help the county build many more units much faster and get people off the street. Farr says he wants to work with the federal government to relax some of these standards in coming years.
Homes for Good director Fox says that another solution would be to bypass federal regulations altogether by creating a pool of voter-approved local money for PSH. Fox, McAllister, Farr and Johnson all say they want to create as much PSH as possible, with the goal of eventually giving every chronically homeless person in Lane County a home.
“We don’t want unsafe living situations for people, but we have to understand that having a place that locks at night is better than having a place that doesn’t lock,” Farr says. A chronically homeless person generally wants a home instead of no home, even if it does only have one sink in the kitchen.
A brand new start
Messal has been a part of ShelterCare’s program for more than three years now, almost as long as she was homeless. She says since she got put into PSH, her mental and physical health has improved, as have her relationships with her children.
She doesn’t have a job right now, but she gets by with her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and support from the programs she’s in. Ward sometimes takes her on grocery runs when ShelterCare has extra money, or when Messal’s in a hard spot. She spends a lot of her time working for One’s Purpose and Hope Ranch Ministries, organizations that fight human trafficking. Messal says she was sex trafficked from the ages of 14 to 22, and was traumatized from the experience, so she wants to help other women who’ve been through the same experience.
Messal is now 40. She says her plan is to eventually move on from ShelterCare, and is going back to school in the fall to learn how to do the type of work Ward does, so she can help people the way she’s helped him.
“I would love to go back to school and get my counseling degree and help women like me,” she says.
As of Jan. 8 of this year, Messal was one year sober. She says she relapsed for a couple of months starting in November 2019 and left her ShelterCare home after one of her close friends died. But ShelterCare, following its Housing First philosophy, never kicked her out of the program, though she did lose the rental agreement they’d helped her receive.
“Chad and the Madrone Program and ShelterCare stuck with me that whole time,” Messal says. “They believe in me. They’re not giving up on me. They know that circumstances happen.”
Once Messal got into a recovery center to get clean again in January 2020, Ward visited her five days a week to fill out housing applications with her.
“They gave me another chance and said, ‘We’re not going to take away your housing because of this. We believe in you,’” she says.
“We don’t give people a first or second chance. We give them 20 or 30 chances,” Dana Petersen, ShelterCare’s housing services director, says. She says that often, the first home or first couple of homes don’t work out for their clients, but they always give them another shot. Fifteen people moved out of ShelterCare into unsupported housing in 2019.
Ward says he’s seen his clients rekindle relationships with alienated children and parents after coming to ShelterCare. He says he’s seen his clients get jobs and move on from ShelterCare into unsupported housing.
In early August, Messal finally got the keys to her second ShelterCare home, this time, a two-bedroom campus-area apartment — not quite the dream home that she received the first time, but a home that she says she loves nonetheless.
Ward welcomed her with the pillows, the blankets, the sheets, the shower curtain, the pots, the pans, the cutlery — all the essentials — once again.
And she got another brand new start.
This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit Journalism.UOregon.edu/Catalyst or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.