Bethesda Nonprofit On Front Lines Of 100K Fight Against Homelessness
On Wednesday morning, a large group will gather on Capitol Hill to announce it has surpassed its goal of placing 100,000 chronically homeless individuals in permanent housing across the country. At the press conference will be staff from Bethesda Cares, the nonprofit headquartered on the first floor of a Bethesda parking garage that has been on the front lines of the fight since day one, helping to bring about a new way of solving homelessness in Montgomery County. "It started in Bethesda," said Jake Magruire, communications director for the national 100,000 Homes campaign. "It sort of expanded and became a countywide effort, which frankly is really amazing." In 2010, a group called Community Solutions -- in partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness -- began the 100,000 Homes campaign as a way to put the focus on the Housing First method of getting the long-time homeless off the street. At Bethesda Cares, Executive Director Sue Kirk and outreach specialist John Mendez led the charge, engaging the homeless on Bethesda's streets and lobbying county officials to help provide more permanent supportive housing opportunities for homeless -- not the cycle of substance abuse treatment and temporary housing that became the traditional model. "In 2010, we were just kind of changing the paradigm for the way we focus on homeless services," Mendez said. "With just about any client, we initially started talking about housing. We don't talk about substance abuse treatment. We're not pushy about getting into a transitional shelter. We talk about getting them a key and that kind of conversation is very attractive for the client, because they've gone through all these different circles before." The impact in downtown Bethesda was immediate. Since September 2010, the nonprofit has referred 41 individuals experiencing homelessness into permanent supportive housing programs, according to Mendez. Of those, 25 were sleeping and roaming the streets of downtown Bethesda. The result is a 65 percent reduction in chronic homelessness in the last four years in the downtown area. Mendez said there are about 15 chronically homeless people who sleep in or frequent downtown Bethesda, down from about 35-40 chronically homeless individuals in 2010. Maguire said the housing retention rate nationwide was 84 percent. Bethesda Cares is a one-floor space with a main room and offices at the bottom of the Woodmont Corner parking garage. It doesn't provide its own housing, which led to partnerships with the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless (MCCH), the county's Department of Health and Human Services and other organizations. MCCH housed the largest percentage of Bethesda Cares' referrals, with 15 individuals placed in its housing around the county. To make it work also required the support of policymakers. Councilmember George Leventhal, chair of the Council's Health and Human Services Committee, became a champion of the Housing First method, often tagging along with Bethesda Cares on early morning surveys of the area's homeless. Leventhal and Councilmember Craig Rice sponsored a $650,000 county budget appropriation last year to immediately place 15 of the county's most medically vulnerable homeless individuals in permanent supportive housing. Also last year, the Montgomery County government officially took part for the first time in the 100,000 Homes campaign. "Montgomery County is an excellent example of, if local government is at the table, you can get things done a lot faster and a lot smoother," Maguire said. "It's a really, really helpful thing to have." According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the number of homeless people in Montgomery County during a January point-in-time count was down 11 percent compared to a point-in-time count in 2013. Experts say point-in-time counts can be deceiving. Maguire said simply counting the number of homeless people on the streets is indicative of older methods that the 100,000 Homes campaign sought to replace with its extensive medical history surveys. For the last few years, Bethesda Cares and other homeless prevention groups across the nation have gone out each fall before dawn to wake up and talk to homeless people sleeping on streets. In Bethesda, that meant finding homeless sleeping near the Metro station escalators, between newspaper boxes or even in a shed behind the now torn down Arlington Road post office. Bethesda Cares staff said asking homeless individuals specific questions about their health -- as opposed to how often they drink or if they have a job -- opens those individuals up to going through the housing process. "We don't want to be judgmental. They will let us know anyway in the process about certain problems," said Eduardo Obregon, who recently joined Bethesda Cares as its bilingual outreach specialist. "They get the sense that we care for them." Once the homeless individual comes into Bethesda Cares, staff offers that person a key as a tangible reminder of the ultimate goal -- to get a place to live. "It's like the ultimate carrot," said Andrea Loejos, a clinical social worker who provides psychotherapy and case management to Bethesda Cares clients. "Now they know it'll get them a house and a place to sleep." The process can be difficult. Beyond the counseling sessions remain the logistics and red tape of placing someone in affordable housing. Loejos said a shortage of affordable housing in Montgomery County is a challenge, as many Bethesda Cares clients want to remain in the area. Bethesda Cares also helps clear up other issues -- such as minor trespassing charges that could interfere with signing a lease, or getting an ID without a birth certificate or social security card. "A client could be sitting in a Starbucks for too long and fall asleep and if a landlord sees that charge, it could interfere," Loejos said. "A lot of times, we feel we're just running in circles." But then there are the success stories. Mendez said the two sleeping in that shed behind the old Bethesda Post Office recently found permanent housing programs through Bethesda Cares. Loejos recently helped place another client. "You can just visually see they are breathing again and think of themselves as a normal part of society and looking forward to the future," Loejos said. "They start thinking about what am I going to do next, instead of just what do I have to do to get through the day." In an interview on Monday, Mendez was quick to spread the credit around for the success of Bethesda Cares. Maguire was less reticient to heap praise on Mendez. "John Mendez is I think one of the most remarkable people in the country," Maguire said. "From the early days, he's just been a total champion for the folks who experienced homelessness in Bethesda. That guy is a hero, absolutely." Obregon said Mendez and Bethesda Cares brings an aggressiveness to homeless outreach that isn't apparent in other local organizations. Mendez and the outreach team are often out at 4:30 a.m., before homeless individuals can get lost in the hustle and bustle of a typical day. While chronically homeless individuals move in and out of downtown Bethesda, it's likely that at least one staff member from Bethesda Cares knows the name and basic background of each homeless person who frequents the area. "Most of the agencies are more site-based and they call that outreach," Obregon said. "So they wait until the clients come to them. Over here, we have the passion to meet them at their psychological level and emotional level, because we go wherever they live and we have seen the outcomes." MCCH reported that since November's 100,000 Homes surveying, 29 of the county's most vulnerable homeless individuals have been placed into permanent supportive housing. "There's more of an investment and I think the investment has paid off," Mendez said. But Mendez said there's room for improvement. For years, Mendez and Kirk have been pushing for the county's Housing Opportunities Commission to expand the definition of affordable housing to include the chronically homeless -- not just the low income. In 2011, Mendez specifically criticized a HOC affordable housing project on Hampden Lane. "In the past, I thought they weren't getting as much housing stock and extending affordable housing to the most vulnerable," Mendez said. "Affordable housing to me is getting it to the people who actually need it the most. It's a learning process for each agency. It just depends on the people in the agency and how willing the agency is to adopt Housing First as a method. "We looked at the data and we said, 'You know what, this works.' And it's proven to work," Mendez said. "It produces results for clients and the 100,000 Homes milestone is just golden. That's what we were hoping to see."