Seven weeks of stability have wrought unimaginable changes in a man who was too afraid to even speak to people last year.
At Liberty House, the new home for the chronically homeless, the man was the very first to move in on Jan. 25. Even that was considered a triumph — he was so cautious that it took years for Bethesda House Executive Director Margaret Anderton to convince him to even come indoors for lunch.
He had been homeless for nearly 20 years, suffering from severe schizophrenia.
But after a few weeks of living indoors, the man who would literally slide away from anyone who tried to speak to him is now starting conversations. He is even trying to get a job.
“He is talking to people in the elevator!” Anderton said. “It’s amazing, the dramatic shift you see in demeanor.”
Anderton credits the “housing first” model on which her program is based. The model proposes solving the individual’s most pressing needs first: shelter, safety, food and hygiene.
The theory is that with those problems solved the residents become more willing to consider medical care, treatment for addictions or job counseling.
Anderton has seen some clients at her other residence, the Lighthouse, recover so thoroughly that they could move into independent housing. That’s remarkable because most residents entered with such serious needs that they would have been deemed good candidates for institutionalization a few decades ago, she said.
“If you’re on the street, you’re surviving. You’re trying not to freeze to death, get raped or starve,” she said.
The dangers are so great that they can’t even begin to think about lesser issues like learning how to interact in social situations.
“You can’t even have that conversation. You’re in survival mode,” Anderton said.
Once those pressures were removed, Anderton watched her frightened resident blossom.
“We’re talking spontaneous conversation,” she said. “He attends tenants meetings. He talks to people. He popped his head in my office the other day — I just about fell out of my chair!”
Recently, he filled out a job application. It was a stunning turnaround.
Not every resident has come so far, so fast. It’s only been seven weeks since the 12 studio apartments at Liberty House were filled. Counselors have started with the basics: setting up income.
Residents qualify for food stamps. Most can get social security or disability payments. Bethesda House charges them a rent equal to 30 percent of their income, for which they receive utilities, food, phone and cable television as well as their shelter.
If they have no income, the Department of Social Services pays for them.
DSS set up special appointments for the new residents, going so far as to schedule Anderton’s schizophrenic tenant during the DSS lunch hour.
“This particular person could go there during the lunch hour when it was closed, so there was no crowd,” Anderton said. “DSS really went above and beyond.”