Street Homeless Enticed Indoors by Housing First

This was a news report on WNYC this morning on housing first in New York. To listen to it online click here.

Street Homeless Enticed Indoors
by Cindy Rodriguez

NEW YORK, NY April 03, 2007 —No curfews, no pressure to detox and private rooms. That’s what some of the city’s hardest to reach homeless are now being offered as incentive to get off the street. There are about 30 of these temporary rooms that appeal to homeless people who don’t like – or don’t trust – the city’s shelters.

REPORTER: Two months ago, Ike Pernell was cold and withdrawn – common survival traits the homeless often adopt when trying to make it on the streets. Today, he and 15 other men have their own rooms inside a non-descript 4 story building in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx.

PERNELL: I’m cooking pork chops, with onions, green peppers, red peppers, potatos and I’m gonna cook some rice and gravy… I marinated it in safron, black pepper, vinegar and garlic…my wife is Puerto Rican so that’s what I do.

REPORTER: And he’s doing all that cooking with a microwave. The gas on the stove is off. Outreach workers don’t yet trust the men with fire. Pernell’s lived on the streets longer than anybody here– 20 years. He compares regular shelters to Rikers Island and says he always refused entering them because workers would try to medicate him. He only agreed to leave the streets after he was promised his own room:

PERNELL/REPORTER: I stick my key in my door. I come to cook my food. Look how healthy I done got…Have you gotten healthy? Yeah I have I was weighing 135 pounds. I weigh 179.

REPORTER: It took Pernell about two months to put the weight back on. He’s a stocky man with a strong build and a salt and pepper beard. Muzzy Rosenblatt is checking on him. He’s the head of the Bowery Residents Committee, the not for profit that placed Pernell in his room. An outreach teams visits at random times each day. Rosenblatt points to a clear blue recycling bag. Several empty Colt 45 beer cans are visible inside. Pernell says they’re not his.

PERNELL/ROSENBLATt: Hey it’s not a problem by me. No it’s a problem by me….I mean I’m no angel every now and then I drink beer too but you gotta respect this place…I try to drum that in their head. But they are not listening. That’s alright everybody’s got their own issues, going at their own pace, and doing their own thing. We’re all going to get there together. I hope so.

REPORTER: Word of this lenient approach — plus the comfort of a private room – is hitting the streets. And some of the most hard to reach people are interested… Once they’re in… it’ll be easier to get them help with often serious mental health and addiction problems. Each room in the Bronx is costing about 8-hundred dollars a month. That’s cheaper than a regular shelter bed which requires onsite staff and security.

HESS: It’s absolutely a good solid model backed up by solid research

REPORTER: Department of Homeless services Commissioner Rob Hess says this approach has been tried across the country, including in Philadephia where he was once in charge. Over the next several months, Hess plans to create 150 of these so-called “Safe Haven” rooms. By next winter he wants 500. He says the homeless should only be staying at the Safe Havens for 3 to 6 months before moving on to permanent housing. The goal is optimistic. Of the 8-thousand single adults who slept in shelters on an average night last year, only about 17-hundred moved into permanent apartments. But Hess says not everyone will need subsidized apartments… some will reunite with family.

HESS: …for some it’s having a conversation with a son or daughter they haven’t seen in 20 years. Some it’s moving back in with relatives. Isn’t that really one of the best outcomes you can get..

REPORTER: Ike Pernell says he’s going to call his kids – not for a place to live, but to be a dad again. All of them are grown except for his 7 year old daughter

Pernell: Don’t you think it’s time I step up?

REPORTER: Pernell hopes to get a section 8 voucher and a place of his own. He never wants to go back to the life he was living, but on a recent sunny Friday afternoon he took me to the place where he used to sleep – the covered front steps of Mickey Mantle Middle School at West End Avenue and 81 street:

PERNELLL/RODRIGUEZ/ SMITH: This is angel he’s been the custodian here for years. I used to sleep right on the corner right on the step …both of them. Tell them how many years I have been out here. Since the 80’s. I came here in 1985 and he was already here.

REPORTER: Angel Rodriguez and Brendon Smith used to wake Pernell up before the school kids would arrive:

RODRIGUEZ/PERNELLL: I remember the time when we had that heavy snow storm and I go to shovel the backstairs and I hit something and it was him. I didn’t even know it was snowing. The box was covered with snow. I was warm though I had all them blankets.

REPORTER: Pernell says the custodians treated him well and so did many of the wealthy residents. But not everyone was kind:

PERNELLL: Some of them was nice. Some was nasty like those two right there I used to cuss them out all the time.

REPORTER: Pernell also got arrested numerous times for stealing. He speaks as if it was all a lifetime ago. He’s more reflective now.

PERNELLL: Oh my god that was deep. It was heavy. Sometimes I thought I wasn’t gonna make it. Sometimes I thought I really wasn’t gonna make it.

Pernell still hangs out on the streets where he used to sleep, he says he’d like to forget about his life there. For wnyc, I’m Cindy Rodriguez