Bethesda Cares has two programs and three goals: through our Eviction and Utility Shut-Off Prevention Program, we want to avert homelessness. Through our Outreach Program, we work to end and ease homelessness.
Living unsheltered is miserable, and generally, our clients are people who’ve suffered homelessness, for years. Because of some barriers internal to them, and others imposed by society, exiting homelessness can take months, or even years. Throughout the process of helping them, we try to offset the harsh conditions of living on the streets, by meeting their daily needs, offering not just food and clothing, but dignity, as well.
Located in downtown Bethesda, our Drop-in Center is our service hub. Clients are welcomed to come out of the weather, get something warm (or cold) to drink and something to eat. The space serves not only as a waiting room for those waiting to see our psychiatrist or a case worker, but also as a space in which clients can socialize with each other. Our Center offers toiletries for use on premises, at our shower program or to take with them; it’s also a space from which we distribute socks, ponchos, backpacks and seasonal other items. We serve hot, nutritious meals every day of the year.
We know that methods of communication can be limited for our clients, so we make a phone available for their use, to stay in contact with family or other service providers. We also accept mail for 395 individuals, who would otherwise have no fixed address.
Our street medicine work, performed in conjunction with Walter Reed Uniform Services University, helps us both ease and end homelessness. For clients on the street, medical assistance helps spot life threatening diseases and minimizes the harshness of street-induced conditions like as frostbite and bronchial infections. Our doctors and medical students bring our clients cutting edge techniques; this year, that’s included Battlefield Acupuncture, a method of reducing pain, and bringing relief to many conditions experienced by those on the streets, similar to those suffered on battlefields.
All of our services are designed serve the dual function of easing clients’ lives and serving as tools of engagement, to help build the requisite trust needed to fill out housing referrals together, then transition to a successful housing placement. Our medical work, offering free care to those who would otherwise have none, is a particularly powerful means of building client trust.
Moving Toward Housing
Last year, we housed 11 individuals from the streets, representing 157 years of homelessness; to house them, staff filled out 153 housing applications. And as a housing-focused outreach program, every single aspect of our work is directed toward successful housing placements. Often sorely disenfranchised, our clients have often suffered repeated, significant failures, trauma or disappointment in their lives. Truly believing that anyone will help them better their lives can feel deeply threatening. However, over time, with patience and hard work, we can help shift their thinking into more positive, productive directions. Thinking big, that is, trusting that housing is possible for them, also helps them visualize what they will need to do, in order to set and accomplish their goals. [While it may be overwhelming it also is, for clients, a revelation to know that they can have not just a meal or a phone call for services, but can get their whole lives back. Bethesda Cares’ full service provides and encourages clients to think beyond the meal or mail that maintains their homelessness, to moving toward to ending it.
In addition to outreach expertise, our team includes a clinical social worker and a psychiatrist, who provide both emotional and substantive in filling out benefit applications such as insurance and Social Security and rental applications.
Ensuring Housing Succeeds
A housing placement represents an enormously positive change for a client, but for anyone who spent many years on the streets, it’s also an extremely challenging adjustment. Building on practices developed in the prison system—helping long-term convicts reenter society—our Critical Time Intervention (CTI) specialist focuses intensively on helping clients acquire the new skill set they’ll need to stay successfully housed. The CTI specialist begins relationship-building long before a move-in, and then becomes the go-to person for the many issues that will inevitably arise which, absent support, could be enough to trigger the client’s walking out of the placement. For those who have been homeless for years, the list of ways in which they need support includes learning how to handle bill paying, tracking doctor appointments, making grocery lists, going shopping, coping with neighbors or landlords, and picking up all the other fractured pieces of life that had been lost.
A Special Landmark and Another Goal
Montgomery County, Maryland, was one just four jurisdictions, nationwide, to reach the goal set by Zero:2016 and President Obama’s Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness: to identify and house every homeless Veteran by December, 2015. Bethesda Cares was proud and honored to have had a major role in this achievement, as responsible for the Rapid Rehousing portion of the campaign. That meant that we needed to both house the backlog of Veterans suffering on our streets and have additional housing lined up so as a Veteran enters homelessness, his or her experience will be “rare, brief and non-reoccurring.”
Building on what we and our partners have learned, we will use 2016 to focus on ending homelessness for those who have been on the streets the longest, suffering from multiple disabilities, and enduring chronic homelessness.
Montgomery County, Maryland is a desirable place to live. There are jobs to be had, and community resources are high caliber. But the cost of living here is extremely high, and many low-wage earners are just making ends meet, with no savings on which to rely to tide them through a difficult time. Someone who is homeless, or living without utilities, is in physical and emotional danger; the toll on them and on the community that supports them, is immediate and substantial. Our Eviction and Prevention program is a vital, county-wide safety-net that prevents people from either living in unsafe conditions (e.g. without running water or electricity), or from spiraling into homelessness.
Averting homelessness before it begins is a US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) best practice, because eviction prevention makes both tremendous social and fiscal sense. The US Interagency Council on Homelessness explained the program’s utility in preventing homelessness:
Most people can successfully avoid homelessness if they get the right help at the right time. A small amount of assistance is often enough to prevent an episode of homelessness and the cost of prevention is usually much less than the cost of shelter and other services people need when they experience homelessness. Prevention diminishes the trauma and dislocation caused by homelessness….homelessness prevention programs reduce the demand for homeless shelters.
Our clients are the County’s working poor; often single heads-of-households working multiple jobs, or elderly clients on fixed incomes; costs of living rise much more swiftly than do their incomes. While sometimes clients can find a place to stay for a few days or even weeks, sometimes eviction requires families to split up in order to fit into the lives and homes of friends and families, or children to precipitously move school districts, or commutes to jobs to become untenable. And frankly, anyone who didn’t have the money to pay rent won’t have the money to pay the first/last/security deposit needed to secure a new place to live, or to pay to store their belongings; they may lose everything. And when hospitality runs out, those clients will land on our streets.
Bethesda Cares works with a network of providers throughout our county, both responsible for crises in our assigned zip codes and serving as the backstop for all our county-wide partners. Offering grants no more often than once a year, our funding goes directly to landlords or utility companies. Our recidivism rate (people who return a second time) is less than one in five. We help between 1200-1500 individuals each year; the vast majority of them (93% of eviction-clients and 89% of utility shut-off clients) maintain their secure status months after the grants are given.