Does housing first work? - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Does housing first work?

Posted: Updated:
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Rick Peterson suffers from bipolar disorder. When he's not on his medication he feels chained.

"Depression, hopeless, helpless, worthless. But this is enhanced, like on steroids," he said.

Peterson found refuge at Safe Haven - Mental Health Kokua. The transitional center houses severely mentally ill homeless in a dormitory style setting. Treatment is encouraged and nearly always accepted.

"Over time, with the ongoing availability of the supportive services and the relationships that are involved, they will be more open to treatment of all kinds. That's what makes it effective," program director Pamela Menter said.

A study said more than 500 homeless on Oahu are plagued by mental illness and substance abuse. They are off medication and out of treatment.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell plans to use a Housing First model to help about 100 chronic homeless over the next two years.

When Safe Haven found Maria Guillory she was sleeping outside the Honolulu Zoo and begging at ABC stores for food. She said having a roof over her head made all the difference.

"It's so hard to commit to treatment when you're on the streets. You have no stability. You don't know if you're going to wake up in the same spot each day," she said.

"With housing a lot of other things come -- esteem, your self-image, how you project yourself," Peterson said. "Confidence comes. How you deal with society. You don't feel like everyone's judging you when they look at you."

Safe Haven has used the Housing First method for 20 years. Clients have a clean room, showers and three meals a day. When they're ready and they agree, they get treatment. Eventually they're moved into permanent housing.

"They can be guided and supported in following those rules so that they can be a tenant," Menter said. "Their rent gets paid. They maintain the housekeeping and the hygiene and the behavioral issues."

Some doubt that the chronic homeless will come off the street and into the city's care when it begins its Housing First program. Peterson thinks otherwise.

"There are people that would be more than willing. They would run down there to this house. This is a platform, a springboard to maybe a way of life they once had, or maybe a way of life they never had," he said.

Copyright 2013 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved