Sanctuary, Not Just Shelter: A New Type Of Housing For The Homeless

Nov 4, 2015
Originally published on November 24, 2015 7:08 pm

Ending homelessness isn't just about finding a home. Sometimes, it's about finding a nice home — a place that's bright, modern and healthy to live in. That's the idea fueling the development of a number of buildings around the country, as communities try to move chronically homeless people off the streets.

In downtown Washington, D.C., one of those buildings is currently going up right beside NPR's headquarters. Still under construction, the structure looks a little like four huge blocks, stacked atop each other and slightly askew. At 14 stories high, it will have a striking view of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument when it's finished.

"It's going to be definitively an inspiring place for the folks that are in it and for this neighborhood as well," says Nadine Maleh, executive director of the Institute for Public Architecture. Until recently, she was the director of inspiring places at the nonprofit Community Solutions, one of the groups behind the project.

"The front of the building will be predominately glass," Maleh adds, explaining that it's designed to let in as much natural light as possible.

The building will provide permanent housing for 60 homeless veterans and 64 other low-income adults, beginning early next year. Each resident will pay about a third of their income in rent for an efficiency apartment. The building will also have a big, open lobby with a concierge desk, much like many of the other new apartment buildings in the area.

"And then we have a lot of really wonderful building amenities which serve to promote community within the building. So there's a computer room. There's a gym," Maleh says.

Out back there will be a patio, and inside, a room for residents to keep their bikes. Social services, like job counseling and health care referrals, will be offered through an office in-house. There are also plans to build a restaurant or cafe on the ground floor, to help attract others in the community who might be wary about having such a facility in the neighborhood.

Maleh says that's the whole idea behind this place: that people who have the kinds of mental health and other issues that made them homeless in the first place will do better — even thrive — when they live somewhere they feel calm, comfortable and part of a community.

A 'Sanctuary' In The City Of Angels

For a good example of what this kind of affordable housing can do, just talk to Emily Martiniuk in northern Los Angeles.

Martiniuk, 63, lives in the Palo Verde Apartments, a bright, stylish facility with a lot of the same amenities that will be offered at the D.C. building: community rooms, a computer lab, patios and a beautiful tree-lined courtyard. She lives in one of the facility's 60 units, on the second floor.

"This is the dream apartment," she says. "I don't call it my room. Other people call it their room. This is my apartment."

She's lived in the building for three years, decorating and redecorating the space with posters, plants and little trinkets.

"It's hunt and pick, because I am low-income," she says with a laugh.

For most of her life, Martiniuk eked out a living driving buses, working as a telemarketer and even owning a small notary business. Then things started to slide: One of her adult sons died, then the economy crumpled — and with it, her business.

"It was like a slow divorce," she says.

Without work, she was no longer able to make ends meet, eventually ending up in a homeless shelter. Her mental health deteriorated, and she was institutionalized for six weeks.

Then, she got the opportunity to move to the Palo Verde Apartments — which is when everything changed, she says.

"I have a mental health issue. The condition of my home is the condition of my mind."

That's why it's so important for her mental health and well-being to have this neat apartment as a "sanctuary," as she calls it.

Obstacles On A Long Journey

There are questions about the cost of these projects, though. The Palo Verde Apartments cost about $16 million, says Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of LA Family Housing, the nonprofit that owns and operates the facility. And she's quick to add that the $16 million price tag is more expensive than the typical permanent supportive housing facility — but that's intentional.

"Another developer most likely would have built this [facility] with much higher density," Klasky-Gamer says. "But we elected to have this kind of courtyard. We elected to have little patios and little convening spaces."

They elected to do that, she says, because it lets them better serve the people they do house here. It's quality over quantity.

The same idea drives the Washington, D.C., project, which will cost about $33 million to develop. But Klasky-Gamer, Maleh and others insist that it's cheaper to build facilities such as these than it is to deal with the many problems people have living on the street, like repeatedly going to the emergency room. And that's why cities and nonprofits have been putting up similar buildings in places such as New York, New Orleans and San Diego.

Still, such facilities are addressing only a fraction of the problem. On any given night, there are about 600,000 homeless people living in the U.S. About 44,000 of them live in LA County alone.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As we're about to hear, ending homelessness is not just about finding a home. It can be about finding a nice home, a place that's bright, modern and healthy to live in. This is the idea behind buildings going up across the country as committees try to move chronically homeless people off the streets. NPR's Pam Fessler and Nathan Rott visited two sites in two different parts of the country.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: I'm going to start us off right next to NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where a new building is under construction. It's pretty tall for this neighborhood, 14 stories high. And it's going to have the kind of view that everyone around here covets, of both the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.

NADINE MALEH: It's going to be definitively an inspiring place for the folks that are in it and for this neighborhood as well.

FESSLER: That's Nadine Maleh, who until recently had a pretty cool title. She was director of inspiring places for the nonprofit group Community Solutions, which is behind this project. She's showing me what's still a concrete shell. But it will clearly be a very impressive building when it's done. It looks a little like four huge blocks randomly stacked on top of each other.

MALEH: The front of the building will be predominately glass.

FESSLER: To let in as much natural light as possible. Early next year, this place will be the permanent home for about 60 homeless veterans and another 60 low-income adults. Each will pay about a third of their income on rent. They'll get a nice sufficiency apartment and a big open lobby with a concierge desk.

MALEH: And then we have a lot of really wonderful building amenities, which serve to promote community within the buildings. So there's a computer room. There is a gym.

FESSLER: Also a patio, where residents can hang out, and an office for social services, like job counseling and health care referrals, and maybe a restaurant or cafe, something to bring in the neighbors who might be wary about having such a facility nearby. And that's the whole idea behind this place. Maleh says people who have the kinds of mental health and other issues that made them homeless in the first place will do better, maybe even thrive, when they live somewhere they feel calm, comfortable and part of the community, which is just what my colleague Nathan Rott found at a similar project in California - right, Nate?

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Yeah, exactly. I visited the Palo Verde Apartments in northern Los Angeles. They have a lot of those same amenities you were talking about, community rooms and a computer lab, patios and a beautiful tree-filled courtyard. The difference is these apartments are up and running, occupied by people like Emily Martiniuk.

This is the dream room, huh?

EMILY MARTINIUK: This is the dream apartment. I don't call it my room. Other people call it their room. This is my apartment.

ROTT: Martiniuk has been in this apartment for three years, long enough to decorate the walls with posters and decorative fans, and the tables with flowers and plants.

Can you come decorate my home?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I know, right?

MARTINIUK: (Laughter).

ROTT: This is beautiful.

MARTINIUK: It's hunt and pick because I am low income (laughter).

ROTT: Martiniuk is 63 years old. She worked for most of her life just making ends meet by driving buses and doing telemarketing. She even owned a small notary business for a while. Then things started to slide. One of her adult sons died. The economy crumpled.

MARTINIUK: My business collapsed. It was like a slow divorce.

ROTT: She stopped being able to make ends meet and ended up in a homeless shelter. Her mental health deteriorated. She was institutionalized. And then, after a while, she got the opportunity to move here, which is when she says everything changed.

MARTINIUK: The condition of my home is the condition of my mind.

ROTT: That's why having this clean, neat place to herself, this home...

MARTINIUK: This is my sanctuary. That's basically it.

ROTT: There's no doubt that this building and design works for Martiniuk. But you're probably wondering the same thing I was when I met with Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, the president and CEO of LA Family Housing, the nonprofit that owns this beautiful, sprawling building.

Why...

STEPHANIE KLASKY-GAMER: Does it cost so much? Sorry (laughter).

ROTT: No, no 'cause I'm sure you get asked it all the time.

KLASKY-GAMER: All the time.

ROTT: Does it cost more to build a building like this?

KLASKY-GAMER: Yep, yep.

ROTT: About $16 million, she says, which seems like a lot for the 60 people who live here. But Klasky-Gamer says that's missing the point.

KLASKY-GAMER: Another developer would most likely have built this with much higher density. But we elected to have this kind of courtyard. We elected to have little patios and little convening spaces.

ROTT: Because, Klasky-Gamer says, it lets them better serve the people they do have, quality over quantity.

FESSLER: And I heard that same thing in Washington, Nate. This project in D.C. will cost $33 million. But developers insist that it's cheaper than dealing with the problems people have living on the street, like repeatedly going to the emergency room. And that's why cities and nonprofits are putting up similar buildings in places like New York, New Orleans and San Diego. But this is addressing only a fraction of the problem. Nationwide, about 600,000 people are homeless on a given night.

ROTT: Forty-four-thousand of whom are in LA County alone. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Los Angeles.

FESSLER: And Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.