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'Housing first' experiment off to a promising start at Martin Luther King Village

chubert@sacbee.com (Cynthia Hubert)
The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, CA)
February 28, 2009
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Greg Lambros walks back to his new cottage in south Sacramento's Martin Luther King Village. Lambros is a former heroin addict and used to live on the streets.

"I'm going home," Gary Lambros told a friend the other day.

It had been 20 years since he last uttered those words.

For the past two decades, Lambros, a longtime heroin addict, had lived and slept in open fields, under bushes, on the streets, in crowded shelters.

Now, home is a tiny beige cottage with white trim on Sacramento's south side. It is one of 80 new, pristine units within Martin Luther King Village, a project that officials hope will play a key role in Sacramento's ambitious plan for ending chronic homelessness.

MLK Jr. Village is unlike any other homeless housing project in Sacramento. Its "housing first" strategy represents a departure from traditional approaches, which require homeless people to be "clean and sober" to retain housing.

"Housing first" advocates argue that homeless people need stable living environments before they can realistically tackle their larger problems, such as mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.

Once people have a safe, permanent place to live, "we can begin to address the issues that were at the heart of their homelessness," said Jonathan Porteus, a psychologist and clinical director at The Effort in Sacramento, one of several agencies that provide counseling services to residents of the village.

The approach strikes at the heart of the city's and county's efforts to end chronic homelessness.

Surveys suggest that more than 2,500 homeless people live in Sacramento, about 700 of whom have been on the streets for a year or more.

More than 200 of those previously "chronically homeless" people have been placed in permanent housing, officials said. Most live in single-family homes or small complexes and are clients of Sacramento Self Help Housing, which supports the "housing first" concept. MLK Jr. Village is the first "high density" project of its kind in the area.

The "housing first" approach has proved successful in other cities, including San Francisco and Portland, Ore., but it remains controversial, even among homeless advocates.

"Handing out housing to people is not the way to go," said Robert Tobin, director of Cottage Housing, which shelters and counsels homeless people and their children in the Sacramento area. "At Cottage Housing, a home is one of the services you get if you commit to certain changes," including becoming and remaining clean and sober, he said.

MLK Jr. Village, a project of Mercy Housing California, cost about $15 million to develop, said Stephan Daues, regional director of housing development for the organization. Its cottages, each with about 400 square feet of space, have small kitchens, dining spaces and bedrooms. The complex, in a mostly commercial area near 47th Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, has wide streets and meticulous landscaping, a communal kitchen, staff offices and rooms for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and counseling sessions.

Most of the village's residents get government disability checks, a portion of which helps pay their rent. Those who are without income pay nothing.

Later this year Mercy, which works with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, hopes to start transforming the former Budget Inn on Stockton Boulevard into another permanent "housing first" complex for homeless people.

The Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco is a believer in the approach, which in recent years has started to take hold across the country, said Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach.

"This is the realization of something that homeless people and their advocates have been wanting for more than two decades," Friedenbach said.

MLK Jr. Village is the culmination of years of work and planning, said Dorothy Smith, a member of the program's board of directors.

"I thought I'd die before it actually got built," she said.

In San Francisco, Friedenbach said, most such projects are within the city's urban core. They have been "really successful," with a vast majority of formerly homeless people staying in housing and off the street, with little disruption to neighborhoods, said Friedenbach.

However, Tobin, of Cottage Housing, said the MLK complex is a different kind of project.

"In San Francisco they are using available housing downtown, where the people you are trying to reach are already living," he said. "In Sacramento we're talking about putting these programs in the middle of neighborhoods." The absence of strict rules against alcohol and drugs is a prescription for disaster, he said.

"For these projects to be successful, you have to be able to go to people in the neighborhood, look them in the eye and guarantee that your residents are going to be responsible and accountable. I'm not sure you can do that in this case."

Mercy Housing California is screening residents and gradually increasing MLK Jr. Village's population. Currently, 25 people have moved in, said Vice President Greg Sparks.

"We didn't want to bring in 80 people all at once," he said. "Things have gone fine, so far. Of course, it's not without its quirks given the population that we serve. Let's just say that the acclimation process has not gone perfect for everyone." At least one person has elected to leave, officials said.

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department has had "just a couple of calls for service" to the complex since December, none of them for criminal activity, said Sgt. Tim Curran.

Things could get dicier once MLK Jr. Village is fully occupied, residents and staff admitted.

But for now, the complex feels like a little piece of heaven to Lambros and others.

"I still have to pinch myself every now and then when I think about it," said Lambros, who is 55 and now off heroin.

Alfred Montgomery, 67, feels much the same way. Montgomery has had good jobs and owned homes in the past, but life took a bad turn for him recently and he ended up living at the Salvation Army. He was among the first to move into MLK Jr. Village.

Inside his sparsely furnished cottage, he cooks his own meals, reads novels and makes pencil sketches of people and places he has known.

"I can come and go as I wish," he said, and although he is not required to get any counseling or treatment for his depression and "slight alcohol issues," he has availed himself of various programs.

He has made new friends, who look out for one another, share jokes and occasionally knock down a drink or two while watching a ballgame.

"Sure, I've had a few beers," said Edward Brooks, 58, who also has spent time on the streets and at the Salvation Army. "But nobody here is getting wild and loose."

The men are mindful, they said, of the village's "house rules," which prohibit behavior that disrupts other people, or committing crimes.

"It's been quite an adjustment," Montgomery said of his new living arrangement. "But the way I see it, this is the beginning of the rest of my life. We have a community here, and it's going to be very nice."

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