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Housing-first facility takes new chance at stability for chronically homeless

FARGO--Mike Barry's apartment has one bedroom, a kitchen and a small living room decorated with patriotic art and string lights. The Fargo apartment is much better than the homeless shelters where 50-year-old Barry used to live, he said. "It gave...

The Cooper House on Thursday, June 25, 2015, in Fargo, ND. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

FARGO-Mike Barry's apartment has one bedroom, a kitchen and a small living room decorated with patriotic art and string lights.

The Fargo apartment is much better than the homeless shelters where 50-year-old Barry used to live, he said.

"It gave me a place of my own. I am able to maintain a steady residence," said Barry, who for years had lived in homeless shelters in Bismarck and Fargo before moving to Cooper House five years ago.

The Cooper House apartment building, managed by the Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority, is aimed at serving chronically homeless people through a model called "housing first," which differs from traditional homeless shelters by providing stable housing before all other services.

The Grand Forks Housing Authority is considering the same model for an income-based rental apartment complex that could be under construction as early as 2017.


While sitting in Cooper House's community room recently, Barry explained how he "drank himself into homelessness" years ago.

"All I did was drink all the time. I wasn't able to work anymore, my house was getting bad, and as my house got worse, I drank more," he said.

In his early 40s, he lost his home, leaving him to stay with other people or in homeless shelters.

Barry's descriptions of his years of transience were spotty, with few details aside from constant instability.

He later tried an alcoholism treatment program in Minneapolis but was unsuccessful, he said.

Barry has become mostly sober living in Cooper House, which does not prohibit alcohol use but restricts the amount of alcohol residents can have. He also has become closer to his family.

"This isn't a treatment program," Barry said. "For me, this is my apartment."

Solving other needs


Throughout the region, housing-first projects like Cooper House have met some resistance from the public, especially from residents and law enforcement during project planning stages. Public safety is reportedly a primary concern surrounding apartments for homeless people.

But experts say the housing-first model is successful in curbing chronic homelessness and related public costs.

For example, a Cooper House impact report released in 2011 states Fargo police officers saw a 72 percent decrease in costs associated with arrests and a 48 percent decrease in jail day costs related to 66 people who had been Cooper House tenants since the facility opened in 2010.

GFHA is looking at Cooper House in Fargo and a similar facility in Duluth as primary examples of what could be built in Grand Forks.

Jill Elliott, deputy director of the Fargo housing authority, said Cooper House is a place for "folks who have not been successful for decades" with finding permanent housing.

People who are chronically homeless-having either been homeless four times in the past three years or continuously homeless the past year-generally have an ongoing circumstance causing homelessness, such as addiction or mental illness, rather than a temporary condition, such as loss of employment, GFHA Executive Director Terry Hanson said.

And once someone is stuck on the streets, homelessness itself causes several health problems, Elliott said. For example, Barry described problems with his legs and knees.

"Long-term homelessness is hard on your body," Elliott said.


Though housing-first apartments don't require residents to be in any sort of treatment or to seek medical care, those resources are available through the housing programs.

The idea is that once people do not have to spend energy trying to find permanent housing, they'll be able to better focus on finding treatment, a job or other needs, Hanson said.

At Cooper House, which has 42 individual apartments, a nurse works on site part time, and case workers, a social worker and an addiction counselor are available.

At New San Marco in Duluth, which GFHA is also looking at as a model for Grand Forks, there are more services because half of the facility, with 30 apartments, is specifically geared toward chronically homeless alcoholics, said Rick Klun, executive director of Center City Housing Corp., which manages San Marco. The other half of San Marco, with 40 units, is for all chronically homeless people, like the Fargo facility.

New San Marco has a full-time case manager, a part-time nurse and a full-time mental health case manager, along with other staff.

"You get your housing first, and then if you want services you can ask for them," Klun said.

Apartments at both facilities charge income-based rent.

Center City Housing has two other similar facilities in St. Cloud, Minn., and Rochester, Minn., but both are only geared toward chronically homeless alcoholics, not all chronically homeless people.


The nonprofit, which works with local public housing authorities, is also working to build a similar housing-first facility in Bemidji.

The facilities provide some other services as well. Cooper House has a free food bank on Fridays for residents, and the half of San Marco geared toward chronic alcoholics has a dining hall. Residents in the other half of San Marco cook their own meals.

A growing need

Though Grand Forks officials are looking at those two nearby projects, they aren't sure what exactly the housing-first model will look like in Grand Forks, said Katie Jo Flint, GFHA outreach coordinator.

GFHA has commissioned Grand Forks consulting firm Praxis Strategy Group to conduct a study assessing the needs of Grand Forks' homeless population, focusing on the proposed housing-first apartment complex.

"We're just trying to see what Grand Forks needs," Flint said.

That grant-funded study, which is expected to be done sometime this fall, should also include location possibilities and other specifics for the Grand Forks project.

Hanson has said the Grand Forks apartments could be under construction as early as 2017.


Hanson estimates building costs at about $150,000 to $170,000 per unit, putting a 30-unit apartment complex at about $5 million. The apartment building will likely have between 30 and 50 units, he said.

Federal and state funding sources, including possible dollars from the state's low-income housing tax credit program, likely will pay for the project, Hanson said.

Though the study formally identifying needs in Grand Forks is not yet complete, several local housing officials and service providers see a need for some sort of housing aimed at helping the area's chronically homeless population, Flint said.

The Grand Forks area's homeless population has been measured by the North Dakota Coalition for Homeless People through a point-in-time survey, which shows on one day in January 2014, 66 people were found to be chronically homeless in the Grand Forks region of Nelson, Pembina, Grand Forks and Walsh counties. All were staying in emergency homeless shelters.

The survey also anecdotally shows a growing homeless population-including those not chronically homeless-in the Grand Forks region and across the state.

According to the coalition, 190 people were found homeless on one day in January 2014 in the Grand Forks region, up from 153 in January 2013.

'We've got rules'

The housing-first model differs from traditional homeless shelters in that it has apartments meant for permanent residence, whereas homeless shelters are generally group housing meant to provide temporary or emergency residence.


"Right now, we're set up to only respond to crises," said Russ Swagger, executive director of the Northlands Rescue Mission homeless shelter in Grand Forks.

But despite that the Mission is meant for quick, temporary help, there are people who have lived there for years.

"What you won't see here at the Mission anymore, if this (housing-first) project works, is you won't see people in those chronic situations anymore," Swagger said.

He envisions staff at the Mission helping some people transfer from the homeless shelter to the new housing-first apartments as part of recovery services the Mission already offers.

Swagger added, though, that some people may still prefer living in a homeless shelter compared to a housing-first option.

As Barry talked about being homeless and living in shelters, his Cooper House neighbors Ben Kukowski and Matt Doyle shared similar stories, describing homeless shelters as too crowded with strict rules-such as mandated sobriety-that sometimes made it difficult to stay there.

The Mission in Grand Forks requires its residents to be sober and to be actively seeking employment, education or permanent housing.

Living at Cooper House is easier than a homeless shelter, Doyle said, because "you have your own place. You cook when you want, sleep when you want."

But Cooper House still has rules. For example, residents pay rent, alcohol is only allowed in limited quantity, and visitors are usually only allowed between noon and 8 p.m.

But Kukowski said these rules are easy to follow for someone who wants to keep his or her apartment.

"Just don't act up. Don't fight," he said. "We've got rules here, but once you're here for a while, they're not rules anymore."

Kukowski, 61, has lived at Cooper House for four years. Before that, he had been staying in shelters after being convicted of driving under the influence and losing a job in Bismarck.

'Up to the challenge'

Lynn Fundingsland, executive director of the Fargo housing authority, said every major North Dakota city could use a housing-first facility like Cooper House, as homelessness is rising across the state.

Fargo's Cooper House has attracted residents from across North Dakota, including from Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Minot, Williston, Bismarck and Jamestown, according to a report provided by Elliot.

And housing-first apartments do not only help homeless people, but they can also reduce public costs-such as law enforcement costs-associated with chronically homeless populations, Elliot said.

When San Marco opened in 2007, its residents saw an 82 percent reduction in police interaction and a 90 percent reduction in detox center use, Center City Housing Regional Director Lori Reilly said.

The 2011 Cooper House report shows a 71 percent decrease in detox center use, with the 66 residents polled visiting the city's detox center 446 fewer times in one year.

Not all 66 people lived at Cooper House for the entire year, but still emergency shelter costs associated with study participants for one homeless shelter in Fargo decreased by 98 percent.

Emergency room visits in Fargo for the 66 people decreased by 10 percent, according to the study.

Though housing officials say the projects in Duluth and Fargo have been successful, those housing-first projects and others across the region have met resistance from the public, particularly before they were built.

"There was backlash in each community," Klun said, referring to San Marco and the similar facilities in St. Cloud and Rochester. "We dealt with it forthright by explaining the process," he said.

Cooper House received support Fargo's mayor and City Commission in the 10 years leading to the facility's opening in 2010, which helped convince the public, Elliot said.

A similar project proposed last year by Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead stirred extensive controversy with many residents opposing the project, which is still in planning stages.

Safety concerns appeared to be at the center of Moorhead residents' opposition. Newspaper archives show some residents said in public meetings they did not want "drunk and disorderly people" in their neighborhood, and others feared the criminal history of potential housing-first apartment tenants.

Moorhead residents reportedly still opposed the project when designs were presented earlier this year.

The Moorhead City Council unanimously opposed the housing project at one point, only to later reverse its vote.

"Are there some neighbors that are skeptical? Yes. Some people think, 'No, we should not do this,'" Klun said of housing-first projects in the region. "But we are up to the challenge."

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