BY DEBBIE PAGE
Fifth Street Ministries hosted U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry on Wednesday for a discussion with community leaders and individuals who have transitioned from homelessness to stable housing through Housing First programs.
McHenry has significant influence as the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees all aspects of the nation’s housing and financial service sectors, including public and assisted housing programs. This committee also reviews the laws and programs relating to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Ryan Fehrman welcomed McHenry to the discussion of HUD programs’ effectiveness through the Housing First program and the need to bridge the gap in federal funding for these programs to more fully address the increasing needs of this population.
The Housing First model is an evidence-based program supporting the principle that homelessness is a problem with a solution — permanent housing. Supportive services geared each individual’s needs are integral to the success of the Housing First model.
However, no one is required to participate in any unwanted service to receive or keep their housing since such requirements assume a “one-size-fits-all” approach to moving from homelessness to housing, according to Fifth Street Executive Director Michele Knapp.
Along with providing shelter, food, and others basic needs to the homeless and under-housed, Knapp said Fifth Street offers love and compassion without questions.
“We are here to help them rebuild their lives. HUD money has helped us to do that. With HUD funding, we use Housing First to work with our clients through case management and getting them into housing as quickly as possible,” Knapp explained.
“Rapid Rehousing helps us with that — paying rent and utilities to eliminate the crisis of homelessness. Once they are in housing, we are able to do wrap-around services to get them connected to whatever they need — treatment, counseling, medical care, and getting employment to increase their income so they can be self-sufficient by the end of our program.”
Fifth Street also works closely with landlords in the area, assuring them that renters will have the support services to be successful, Knapp added.
Teena Willis, Housing Manager for Partners Health Management, uses HUD funds to get housing for folks who are “literally on the street, still in addiction, still in active mental health symptoms, domestic violence. Whatever the situation, we meet them where they are to provide them with supports.”
“Without those supports, the housing will never work. The supports are a meaningful part,” said Willis.
No services are required, but a Partners Care Manager advocates for interventions with clients to get them the services they need.
“The program is amazing in how it’s transformed lives, and we are really proud of that,” said Willis.
Kathy Hoover, friend and mentor to Dennesha Peet and her son Ethan, spoke on Dennesha’s behalf about their experience over the past decade as Peet moved from homelessness to stability for herself and her two sons.
Hoover met Peet, who was homeless, disabled, and needing a “boost,” while volunteering at Fifth Street. Through the shelter’s Permanent Supportive Housing Program, Peet got an apartment and has been living on her own for nine years, providing a stable home and school experience for her sons, who are both excellent students and athletes and active in their church youth group.
“It’s all because they had a stable home, stable friends, and stable support through friendships at their church. It’s given her boys things they could have never had if it weren’t for this program and Fifth Street,” said Hoover, who said Peet is thankful for Fifth Street’s role in her life.
Before she had even settled into her new apartment, Peet asked to accompany Hoover when she volunteered at Fifth Street in the preschoolers room. She also mentored moms and taught a parenting class on kitchen and food safety once a month for seven years to give back to the place that helped change her family’s life.
Veteran Mark Sanchez shared his experience receiving housing through the Rapid Rehousing Program after becoming homeless after a difficult family situation. The former pastor and corporate employee lost his kids, support system, and financial resources.
Through Fifth Street, he moved into its Veterans Transitional House and received help to work through his situation through case management. The Rapid Rehousing Program provided first and last month’s rent and initial utility costs to later help move into an apartment.
Fifth Street continued to help him with finances, budgeting, and making the right choices to move toward independence. He is now spending time with his children again and is glad to be self-sustaining and helping to support his kids so that he is no longer a drain on community resources.
Sanchez began working at Fifth Street and saw the many barriers to getting housing — including housing costs, COVID moratoriums, and the large deposits required on apartments and utility services.
Sanchez said that Rapid Rehousing is a “vital program for people who are coming out of homelessness to have that support system initially so there is no reoccurring homelessness.”
Eviction also becomes another strike on the person’s record and perpetuates the cycle of homelessness.
Statesville Mayor Costi Kutteh applauded Fifth Street for being an excellent steward of the resources it receives to address homelessness. He regrets that some in the community blame homeless people for having some sort of “deficiency” to be in their situation and are reluctant to support programs to help them.
These people do not understand that many homeless people have mental health issues or substance use issues and need societal supports to stabilize and become self-sufficient. The high cost of housing is another issue. Though houses are going up all over the county, Kutteh said that “the prices to get into those properties is still beyond the reach of so many people.”
The mayor said as many as 10,000 people in Iredell County are under-housed.
Attempts at macro-level solutions to solve the homeless crisis are ineffective alone, said Kutteh. “We must solve homelessness one person at a time.”
This one-on-one micro level support can provide opportunities, training, instruction, and assistance in whatever ways are necessary to create a sustainable end to each person’s cycle of homelessness.
Federal support of organizations like Fifth Street Ministries is essential to change more lives in the future, concluded Kutteh.
Dr. Nimesh Shah, a geriatric psychiatrist with Mission Hospital-McDowell, helps serve homeless persons with serious mental health barriers that make sustaining housing difficult. The lack of supportive permanent housing for these clients to transition out of hospital care is a serious problem, he said.
Shah said it is vital to create options and a stable base for people who cannot reach their basic needs, which will also help the drain on hospitals, EMS, and law enforcement agencies.
United Way of Iredell County Executive Director Brett Eckerman shared the ways that private dollars, through organizations like his, can be utilized to support other areas of need when public dollars are dedicated to providing housing and case management services.
Eckerman said that in 2019 the 51 United Way agencies in North Carolina funneled $76 million into local nonprofits and services. Even if they put all that money into housing, “we are not in a place where we can replicate or even bandage the public housing need without the public support that comes into that system.”
“What we can do with our $76 million is rally it around that government support, make sure it is extended.”
Eckerman said that the testimonies showed “what it looks like when a community comes around folks and helps them make this transition from crisis to stability.”
United Way has provided nearly $100,000 for the work at Fifth Street Ministries through the generosity of community members’ donations.
Rev. Dan Pezet, district superintendent of the Metro District of the Western Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, applauded the passion in the room to help fellow human beings, no matter their background.
“When we make room for a stranger, we invite in Christ himself,” said Pezet, who noted that homeless initiatives have the broad support of the 298 UMC Churches in McHenry’s district as well as the 1,000 churches and 300,000 members across Western North Carolina.
Pezet praised the “synergy of different different organizations coming together for a common cause.”
Before turning the floor over to the Rep. McHenry, Fehrman asked the congressman to use his power, influence and position to help solve the homeless crisis through programs like Housing First, which has the data to demonstrate its effectiveness.
“We’ve got great organizations, we’ve got folks that benefitted, we’ve got folks that are helping folks to get off the street and into independence and permanent housing. I believe that we are on the right track with Housing First.”
McHenry thanked the participants for the important work they are doing providing housing opportunities and the all important wrap-around services. He said the money should come from Washington to support community based-programs that work for that area’s specific circumstances.
“It should be community level, not DC-driven,” he said.
He praised the holistic view that the organizations have. “You’re talking about human beings that can have a different life” with the stability of permanent housing and a transition support system.
McHenry said that Peet’s immediate desire to volunteer to help others at Fifth Street after moving out shows the power and strength of the program. He wants to effectively use federal dollars to examine and replicate successful programs like this.
After the session, Knapp took McHenry on a personal tour of the facility to conclude his visit.