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Rapid rehousing pays in fight against homelessness

| Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, 6:42 p.m.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Dwan Liggins, 46, poses for a portrait on her apartment porch in Beltzhoover on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Dwan Liggins, 46, poses for a portrait in her apartment kitchen in Beltzhoover on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Dwan Liggins, 46, poses for a portrait in her apartment living room in Beltzhoover on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Robert Phillippi, 58, of Wilkinsburg talks about living on the streets in the basement of Smithfield United Church of Christ, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Phillippi, originally from Braddock, was homeless off and on for around 20 years before he was placed in a home.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
A decorative sign hangs in Dwan Liggins' kitchen in her apartment in Beltzhoover on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2017.

Dwan Liggins arrived at the Uptown stoop of Bethlehem Haven's women's shelter in late October feeling desperate.

Tears streamed down the 46-year-old woman's face as she told the admissions specialist she had no place to go. She had just escaped an abusive relationship and lost the temporary job she relied on as her primary source of income.

"I cried like a baby. I cried because I felt like I had failed," said Liggins, a New Jersey native who started working two jobs soon after relocating to Western Pennsylvania from North Carolina last year.

The threat of living on the streets rattled Liggins, who had spent the past decade on a rejuvenating upswing — she kicked a drug addiction nine years ago, got her GED in 2012, earned her associate's degree in 2015 and was months away from saving enough money to bring her 11-year-old special-needs grandson to Pittsburgh to live with her.

A security deposit, first month's rent and landlord's approval were all she needed to get back on track — making Liggins a primary candidate for a rapid rehousing program.

Federal pressure — and funding — has been mounting in recent years for local human-service agencies to thwart homelessness by using a data-driven tool dubbed rapid rehousing. The approach, a shift from temporary housing programs, not only helps homeless people quickly secure affordable housing, it also saves taxpayers' dollars.

"It's community-based rental assistance and follow-up support," said Jeremy Carter, chief housing officer at Strip District-based Community Human Services, which runs 13 housing programs along with a food pantry, drop-in center and mental health treatment. "The goal is to get a person living independently without the nonprofit's subsidies within nine months or less."

Rapid rehousing is based on the concept that vulnerable people — including those struggling with addictions, mental health issues and trauma — will have better outcomes and be less likely to become chronically homeless if they get into their own residences as quickly as possible.

"The longer a person is homeless, the harder it is to get out of that situation," said Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. "The same set of services that you might have received in shelter are going to be more effective if you're in a home of your own."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched its first rapid rehousing pilot programs in 2008. Congress officially recognized the tool in 2009 as an effective strategy and devoted more than $1.5 billion toward programs implementing it nationwide.

Just last month, HUD awarded Pennsylvania more than $100 million in grants toward reducing homelessness, including $17.8 million across 20 agencies in Allegheny County.

"We're just now starting to see the impact this has had when you ramp up so many more rapid rehousing programs in the community," said Carter — including increased demand for landlords willing to work with challenging tenants.

Many affordable-housing options are out of reach for the homeless. Long wait lists persist to get Section 8 vouchers and into government-run housing complexes.

A piece to rapid rehousing is cultivating networks of private landlords open to tenants with criminal records, substance abuse problems or bad credit. Caseworkers stand by to mediate any problems.

"It's good to have that," said David Resanovich, 61, a landlord used by CHS who owns 41 housing units across Allegheny County, including low-income rentals in Pittsburgh's Braddock and Homestead neighborhoods.

Shiree Patterson, 30, needed to persuade a landlord to take her in when she suddenly became homeless in late September after her mother got sick with cancer. Her four children were placed in a different temporary shelter than she was, and she was told she'd have to secure her own place to get them back.

"I thought I was in a bad dream," said Patterson. Bethlehem Haven caseworkers helped Patterson obtain emergency food stamps and wrote letters in her support to prospective landlords. She moved into a three-bedroom townhouse in Northview Heights on Dec. 28.

"It has a little front yard and I love the basement — everything's brand-new. I'm thinking of making it a playroom," she said.

Early federal data show that families enrolled in rapid rehousing programs leave shelters in an average of two months, compared to more than seven months for those who do not.

The strategy also yields better bang for the taxpayer's buck: Five families can be rapidly rehoused at about $6,578 per household — the same as it would cost for one family in transitional housing over an extended period ($32,557).

CHS, which places more than 2,000 people a year, has reduced the time it takes to get someone housed from several months just a few years ago, down to an average of less than 30 days in 2016.

"My goal was not to be in a shelter as long as others were," said Itiyonna Eady, 20, a Family Dollar manager who entered a CHS shelter with her 6-month-old son in late September.

CHS did more than help Eady find a place; they provided her with Christmas toys, diapers, cleaning supplies, kitchen accessories, bedding and access to cheap furniture. She knows she can check in with her caseworker anytime.

"If you don't have the follow-up support services, it's not going to work," Carter said. "We want to see people pay their rent, be self-sustainable and be holistically OK."

That ongoing guidance is "very important" for the recently homeless, said Robert Phillippi, 58, who grew up in Braddock and lived on the streets more for than 20 years.

"Some can't read. A lot of people are computer illiterate," said Phillippi. He credited his Pittsburgh Mercy caseworker with getting him into his own place two weeks ago in Wilkinsburg.

"It's so hot, man," Phillippi said. "It's like a big living room, a big full-sized kitchen. I love it."

Ten days after Bethlehem Haven took up her case, Liggins signed the lease of the cozy two-bedroom apartment she'd been eyeing in Beltzhoover.

Earlier this week, she proudly showed off her new digs, still sparsely furnished, the freshly painted walls and mantles adorned with her diplomas and photos of loved ones.

She paused in the kitchen and plucked off the wall a small plaque with one of her favorite sayings, "I've been called a lot of things in my life, but Grandma is the best one so far." She said she hopes soon she'll be reunited with her "grandbaby," Andre, whose father died and whose mother cannot care for him.

Until then, she'll wake each day to Gospel music — her favorite — and hunt for a higher-paying job in the comfort of her own home.

"To have my own key to stick in the door and lay my head down and get a decent night sleep — that's the key to it all," Liggins said. "It's getting up in the morning and being able to look in the mirror and smile and say, 'I got this for today.'"

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