Casper nonprofit tries new approach to sheltering the homeless

2014-06-09T08:00:00Z Casper nonprofit tries new approach to sheltering the homelessBy TOM DIXON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
June 09, 2014 8:00 am  • 

CASPER, Wyo. — Every night for the past seven months, Eddie Martinez has closed his eyes and lay in a bed with a roof over his head.

Martinez calls it solid living. He has a steady roof, steady food and steady medication, and he has no plans of letting the opportunity go to waste.

“I never thought I’d get to this point,” Martinez said. “I thought the way I always felt before, that was how I would always feel. I thought I’d never get out. I don’t want to lose this chance.”

A Casper nonprofit is launching a new program intended to make sure he doesn’t lose it.

The idea behind Housing First is to handle the simple needs, like food, water and shelter, which consume the daily lives of the homeless. With Community Action Partnership addressing those concerns, the homeless can focus on other, complex issues.

Martinez grew up homeless. His mom and four siblings lived on and off the streets in Tucson, Arizona. They moved to Casper in 1998, and Martinez said he was kicked out of the house when he was about 10 years old.

On the streets, he asked other children for food. He slept in laundromats, on the ground or behind garbage cans — anywhere to get a little sleep.

He said he was verbally and physically abused at home. It made it difficult for him to focus in school — he barely passed the college classes he took — and it instilled in him a deep distrust of people.

In a recent interview, he stared into the distance while his hands traced his symptoms. He tapped his chest rapidly while talking about his accelerated heartbeat, moved his hands to his stomach and indicated the tight, squeezing feeling in his gut.

“I start thinking, ‘How is this person going to screw me over?’ ” Martinez said.

In the past four years, he has spent about five months at the Central Wyoming Rescue Mission. He was kicked out nearly a dozen separate times for getting into altercations, not doing his chores or making other guests uncomfortable.

Martinez has medicine for his litany of mental disabilities, but it was difficult for him to keep a schedule when he didn’t even know where he was going to sleep that night.

People who are living in transitional housing or staying at the rescue mission have to abide by certain rules. If they don’t, they can be evicted.

“There’s always the threat of not having a place to live,” said Brenda Eickhoff-Johnson, executive director for Community Action. “(With this program), we are committing to giving them a home. No matter what, we are committed, and they are not going to lose that home.”

Housing First is designed for people like Martinez who are chronically homeless, generally because of a physical or mental disability.

The program has been instituted in over a dozen cities throughout the country. Clients pay 30 percent of their income, the federal standard for affordable housing, in exchange for clean, safe and affordable units with no preconditions or expectations, but with lots of guidance and assistance from a case manager.

“For Eddie, trust has always been a big-time issue. I think this is an opportunity to show him real people do care about him,” said Theresa Bush, Martinez’s case manager. “There are lots of Eddies out there, and this program will help them move forward. Everybody deserves to move forward.”

Research has shown that the policy may offer more pragmatic solutions, too, saving taxpayers money on inpatient, detox and jail costs.

In a yearlong study of about 90 Housing First participants and homeless people, University of Washington researchers found that the median monthly cost of a homeless person to taxpayers was about $4,066. That cost decreased to $960 after a year in housing.

A Colorado Coalition for the Homeless study of about 200 people in the Housing First program showed that the number of emergency room visits dropped an average of 34 percent, the number of inpatient visits fell by two-thirds and the number of incarceration days plummeted 76 percent.

Three in four participants were still in the program two years later.

Eickhoff-Johnson said there are between 50 and 75 chronically homeless people in Casper. She believes Housing First is the best and most cost-effective way to treat homelessness in the city.

First, she has to find units.

Eickhoff-Johnson only recently secured enough public money and private donations to run this program for a year. Eventually, she wants to have an apartment complex dedicated to Housing First.

For now, Martinez is hunting likely rental prospects from the public library and his motel room. He hands contact information over to Eickhoff-Johnson, who is talking with landlords to explain Housing First’s goals, Community Action’s role and Martinez’s situation.

“Eddie should not be defined by his mental disability. He should be defined by his good heart,” Eickhoff-Johnson said. “He’s worked hard to get here. He wants to succeed.”

To that end, Martinez is trying to land an interview with the Salvation Army. Martinez can list off a string of two-, three- or four-week work stints he’s had over the years, but he has never held a job longer than two months since he was 16, he said.

He thinks being on steady medication will focus his mind.

“In my head, I’ll think I’m doing really well, and then I’ll see reality and say, ‘Oh, man, I’m not doing well at all,’” Martinez said. “My brain’s going from A to F to Z to Q to 5. The medicine helps my brain go A, B, C.”

Martinez’s goals are modest. He wants to move into a place he can call his own. He wants a job, and he wants to feel settled.

For now, falling asleep surrounded by four walls and a roof that still aren’t his is as far as he dares speculate.

If pressed, he holds his pointer finger and thumb together at arm’s length and squints at the spot of light between them.

“It might just be a speck in the distance, but maybe I can go back to college,” Martinez said. “I want to be self-sufficient. That will open a spot for somebody else.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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