Survival the solution for older homeless men

Story and photo by Lee Horton

The front door is open while a man sleeps in his new studio apartment. It isn’t an accident. After years of being homeless, the man finally gets a place he can call his own. He just isn’t ready to believe it, or to let go of the life he has become accustomed to.

The Sunrise Metro Apartments, located at 580 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City, provide permanent shelter for chronically homeless men.

So, he purposely leaves the entrance open. He’s not the only one who does so.

“When you go into an apartment and close the door, you’re alone,” said Joyce Crockett, a case manager at The Road Home, a nonprofit service agency in Salt Lake City that helps shelter and feed the homeless. “As much as these guys want to get out of shelter, they hadn’t been alone alone for a long time.”

Crockett said one man continued to sleep outside for almost a month after he moved into his apartment.

“It is a surprisingly difficult adjustment,” Crockett said.

The Sunrise Metro Apartments, 580 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City, are a housing-first project opened by The Road Home in 2007. It provides apartments to men who have been chronically homeless.

A person needs to spend more than 700 nights in a shelter to be considered chronically homeless. Most clients of Sunrise Metro have been living on the streets for as long as seven to 10 years. Many of them are older adults.

The number of older adults who will be homeless and will need assistance from a shelter or other programs is only going to increase, said Alesia Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker at The Road Home.

“Because of the economy, the demographic is going to change,” Wilson said. “Society has always been able to take care of the elderly, but it is getting more difficult.”

She said a lot older adults are becoming homeless because their families are not able to afford to take care of them, or to put them nursing homes. Many others are ending up on the streets because they’ve lost their 401(k) money.

Wilson said homeless people live an average of 20 years less than people who have a consistent roof over their head.

Sunrise Metro takes some of the male older adults out of shelters and gives them their own apartment. Despite the difficult adjustment, having the responsibility of their own home is significant for chronically homeless older adults.

“There are a lot of self-esteem issues with being homeless,” Crockett said. “We see people accepting who they are and not being embarrassed of who they are. They feel comfortable in their own skin for the first time in a really long time. They have a nice apartment, and it’s pretty stable. They’re not on the street, they’re not in the shelter. They don’t feel like such a loser.”

The housing is permanent, but the residents still struggle to accept their good fortune. Crockett said many of the residents worry about the program leaving their lives as easily as it entered it. They also question why they are so lucky.
“A lot of people feel they don’t deserve it,” Crockett said.

The more the residents become accustomed to having their own apartment, the more confident they feel. The newfound self-esteem helps them take more risks.
One risk they take is being more social. Crockett has seen many people who never interacted with anyone at the shelter open up.

“When we see them, when we have an activity, having a conversation with a stranger or another tenant, it is very heart-warming,” Crockett said.

The best measure of success is the number of residents Sunrise Metro has been able help to reconnect with their family.

“There are a lot of people here who haven’t had any involvement with their family for a very long time,” Crockett said.

It often isn’t easy to get older homeless men to get in contact with their family. Case managers at Sunrise Metro ask residents about their family and if they want to talk to them. At first, the residents are uncomfortable with the thought and decline the invitation. Many of them feel guilty for causing their family to fall apart.

The residents will start to think about their family more and more after being asked. Eventually, they are ready to take action.

“Some families are very excited when they call,” Crockett said. “Sometimes, they just haven’t called their family. Their families want to know where they are and what they are doing.”

Crockett said the confidence to take the risk to get in touch with their family usually starts with having a suitable place to live.

“The fact that they have a place to live is probably the biggest drive to find their families because they have a nice apartment, and they’re not on the street, not in the shelter,” she said.

Residents also gain self-confidence from obtaining employment. Sunrise Metro has case managers who help the residents write up a resume. “They have more skills than they think,” Crockett said.

The struggling economy has made finding a job a more difficult task. The businesses usually willing to hire older homeless men don’t have any openings. Even the normally reliable Deseret Industries doesn’t have openings.

“When you can’t get them a job at the D.I.,” Crockett said, “you know things are bad.”

Older homeless adults also face age discrimination. Crockett believes these men are physically capable of doing most jobs. They just need an opportunity.

The case managers are on-site five days a week. Besides assisting the men with their job search, case managers also hook them up with resources and help them get out and functioning in the community. If the men are unable to find jobs, the case managers help the men through the Social Security process.
Case managers also help the residents put together a case plan. Crockett calls Sunrise Metro a “client-driven program.” This means the residents decide on their goals. Case managers make sure the residents are meeting their goals. If they are not, the case manager will refine the plan or revamp what isn’t working.

Case managers also get to know each resident’s specific situation so they don’t head back down the path they are trying to leave.

“The [purpose] of having on-site services is to be available when you see a problem that people fall in that leads them to be homeless,” Crockett said. “You would be here to interrupt that, whatever their cycle is.”

Residents also have therapy services available with Alesia Wilson through The Road Home. But they don’t often they take advantage of it.

“It’s not really their priority,” Wilson said. “They’re more in survival/crisis mode. Staying alive is all they need.”

Both Wilson and Crockett believe living through homelessness has made the residents resilient.

“These are strong people in a lot of ways,” Crockett said. “They’ve had to be in order to survive.”

Just getting a place to live after all the years of living in the streets and in shelters is enough to call Sunrise Metro a successful endeavor, Crockett said. “I think it allows them to die with some dignity.”

Salt Lake County faces refugee-housing crisis


At the end of 2007, Salt Lake County Community Resources and Development commissioned a report on the housing situation for refugees within the county. The report, published in December 2007 by Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants Inc., revealed a dire situation.

According to the report, Salt Lake is what is known as a “highly-impacted community.” When compared to other counties of relatively similar size, Salt Lake has resettled a disproportionately large share of refugees.

The report gives a number of reasons for this discrepancy. Refugees tend to be very successful here due to Salt Lake’s constantly expanding job market. Simply put, more jobs means the county needs more people to fill them.

Perhaps the main reason is the family-friendly atmosphere of the city. Many refugees who come to the U.S. have large families, of which Salt Lake is traditionally more accepting. Almost one-fourth of the families resettled in Salt Lake in 2007 had 5 or more people in them; with some having as many as 11.

Resettling large families in Salt Lake also leads to large numbers of secondary resettlements. This is when a person, or group of people, decides to relocate to a city to be closer to family after having already been resettled in another part of the country.

But with a steadily growing job market and a near-constant stream of new residents the vacancy rates in apartments in Salt Lake is low. And when vacancy rates are low, rent tends to go up. This is especially true of larger units that are needed to house the larger families being drawn here.

According to the Wikstrom report, an annual income of more than $24,000 per year is required to afford an average priced, one-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake. The average refugee works a minimum wage job and earns about half that amount. This means multiple earners are needed in the home just to afford the cheapest possible option.

Adaptation to apartment life is another housing problem facing refugees. Many who come to the U.S. are coming from refugee camps in Africa or Asia, and often have never lived anywhere else. These camps are not always equipped with the modern conveniences of a Salt Lake apartment.

“Sometimes you have to teach people how to use a light switch,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake. He and his caseworkers assist refugees assimilating to their new surroundings.

“Imagine having to teach someone that, then have to teach them about a lease, or paying utilities,” he said.

This concern resonates with other refugee care organizations. At a recent refugee service provider network meeting, held by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, housing problems ranging from cooking in apartments with open flames to a bedbug infestation were discussed.

Situations like these make landlords wary of allowing other refugees to rent their units in the future.

Fortunately, local government has not turned a blind eye to the situation. Early in 2008, the Department of Workforce Services opened the Refugee Services Office. It was created with the intent of coordinating the many agencies and nonprofit organizations that work to help refugees in and around Salt Lake.

Gerald Brown, the director of the Refugee Services Office, feels the number of refugees coming to Salt Lake is not going to slow down any time soon. “People will not stop coming here as long as they can get here what they can’t get there,” Brown said.

Salt Lake City has also begun to explore other solutions for the housing crisis. In January 2008, just after the Wikstrom report was released, the Community Resources and Development division of the Utah Department of Human Services assembled a committee to find a solution. The committee, comprised of refugee service caregivers and local business owners, came up with an idea to build temporary housing specifically designed for recently resettled refugees.

The facility, which is being referred to as “welcome housing,” would not only be a place for refugees to live for the first year or two in America, but would also provide onsite casework assistance with a goal of eventual acculturation. This staff would include people to help teach refugees the basics of apartment living in a safe atmosphere where they can develop these skills before having to find permanent housing on their own.

The projected 50-unit project is still far from fruition, said Dan Lofgren, president and CEO of Cowboy Partners, a real estate development and property management company based in Holladay. Lofgren is also a member of the state housing committee.

Until somebody steps up with funding for the project, he said it would never be anything more than an idea. But even money won’t permanently fix the problem.

“There aren’t resources available to build our way out of this,” he said.

The Wikstrom report came to a similar conclusion. According to the report, there needs to be better training to teach refugees good renter practices. Availability of housing is not a panacea for the rest of a refugee’s life as a U.S. resident.

A big change is coming for the IRC in SLC


Imagine you have just contracted a life-altering disease. You find a specialist who knows how to treat it and the two of you work together to improve your quality of life. Now imagine that after six months you are told you have to go to a new specialist. The new doctor is just as qualified, but knows very little about your specific needs. You now have to go back and find a system that works for you both.

This is what life is like for newly arrived refugees in Salt Lake City. They are given six months to grow accustomed to one aid organization, and then their case is handed over to another, Patrick Poulin said. Poulin is the resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake.

The IRC is an international nonprofit organization that specializes in resettling refugees from around the world in the United States.

The IRC is also the first doctor in the scenario given above.

When the U.S. State Department decides who will be given a new home here, they approach groups like the IRC and ask them how many refugees their organization can take on. The IRC then gives them a number. When the two agree which cases will be handled, the IRC is given all the information on each person being resettled.

The next job is deciding which of the IRC’s 17 U.S. regional offices will handle each case.

Once the local office has the information and has arranged for the refugee to enter the country, the staff have six months to do everything they can to help people get resettled and become self-sufficient.

According to the IRC’s Web site, staff and volunteers work together to help refugees obtain “the tools of self-reliance: housing, job placement and employment skills, clothing, medical attention, education, English-language classes and community orientation.”

This is where the second specialist gets involved.

After six months of assistance from the IRC the refugees and their cases are transferred to the Asian Association of Utah.

The AAU, which is also a nonprofit organization, works with refugees to improve their situation by upgrading housing, finding permanent employment so they can become completely self-sufficient. The goal of the AAU is to have refugees settled into a job, a community and a way of life that will best facilitate their individual needs.

Both organizations have similar goals, but Poulin says it’s a difficult transition for someone coming from a completely different world to have to adjust to a new aid organization so quickly. That is why he and the IRC have been trying to extend their involvement with refugees from six months to as many as 24 months. Poulin feels this is ample time for refugees to get settled into their new surroundings and firmly anchor their new life in America.

Lina Smith, program director for resettlement for the Asian Association of Utah, agrees with Poulin. “I think whatever works for the refugee, I’m for it,” Smith said.

The AAU currently handles all refugee cases in the state including those managed by other nonprofits.

Smith said the IRC will begin working with refugees for up to two years beginning in January. She feels this will help ease the workload of the AAU’s four full-time caseworkers who currently oversee more than 80 cases each. Her organization will still be there to help refugees who need assistance after the first two years.

Smith and Poulin agree that a more equal share of the responsibility between the two organizations is beneficial for the refugees and the nonprofits. But they still worry about money.

Both organizations receive funding from the State Department, but Smith and Poulin feel that it is not enough. Currently, refugees receive $425 a month on which to live.

Poulin said Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has set aside an additional $200,000 from the Utah state budget for refugee services in 2009. Poulin also says The George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation has promised the IRC a $50,000 grant.

Poulin is convinced the additional funding will help greatly with the overall success of their program. He said, “If we are able to provide more quality services to refugees … then we are successful.”

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