It took Troy Leichner a while to stop collecting things.
He began accumulating items while living in his vehicle and on the streets for eight years, a response to having his things repeatedly taken during street cleanups.
“They come and take everything away from you all at once. Then you have to start all over again, start rebuilding everything you had. It becomes a cycle,” said Leichner, 50.
When he moved to The Pacific, a supportive housing complex in Vancouver’s Ogden neighborhood, he had to unlearn this habit. Hoarding behavior, which affects supportive housing residents at more than three times the rate of the general population, is just one of many challenges the formerly homeless face when transitioning into housing.
After living outside for years, moving into an apartment is a shock. Mental, behavioral and physical health issues can make it hard for people to stay housed.
“It took a while to adapt to becoming homeless. It’s going to take a while to adapt to becoming housed,” said Heather Sheppard, Pathways program manager with the Council for the Homeless. “Some folks have never had a stable house, and they have no experience on how to do that.”
Many people living outside are trying to get inside. But there are others who — even when offered housing — decide to stay outside.
Histories of trauma and distrust in systems of care are large factors in some people’s decision not to accept help, according to Cody Shaw, Council for the Homeless coordinated outreach manager. “It takes multiple and consistent engagements over a period of time with an individual to get them to a space where they’re willing to trust us and actually start working with us,” Shaw said.
Vertie Lee Anderson, 61, was homeless for many years while struggling with cocaine addiction. He now lives at Kasper Recovery Housing, a clean and sober complex at the previous site of the Value Motel in Hazel Dell. But it took him seven tries at treatment before he was ready to live there.
“If you’re used to being outside and doing your own thing, then coming inside, it’s like being in jail,” Anderson said. “They get claustrophobia — especially if they’re suffering from withdrawal.”
Patience is key to working with those who are hesitant to move indoors, according to Sheppard.
“The homeless response system is not built for patience. Everyone wants outcomes, and they want outcomes now,” she said. “Meeting people where they’re at means moving at their speed and moving at the speed of trust. And that does not happen fast sometimes.”
Supportive housing solutions
To make the transition smoother, local agencies like the Council for the Homeless, the Vancouver Housing Authority and Share are turning to permanent supportive housing, low-barrier affordable apartments with on-site services.
In contrast to clean and sober living, supportive housing follows a Housing First model, which aims to make the exit from homelessness more sustainable by encouraging — but not requiring — treatment.
“In order to address the trauma, to address the substance-use issues, to address the behavioral health stuff, to address all these other underlying issues, the biggest thing is getting somebody in this place where they feel safe enough to do so,” Shaw said.
Housing Initiative LLC, a subsidiary of the Council for the Homeless, has built three permanent supportive housing complexes in Vancouver in recent years: The Meridian, a 46-unit building completed last summer; The Elwood, a 46-unit building completed in February 2021; and The Pacific, an 18-unit building completed in January 2020.
So far, the model is working: The Elwood has had a 93 percent success rate since opening, with 53 of the 57 original tenants still in permanent housing, according to the Council for the Homeless. The Pacific has had a 92 percent success rate, with 23 of the 25 original tenants still housed.
“Sometimes we hear in the public that Housing First is giving someone an apartment and saying, ‘Good luck. Do whatever you want. We’ll pay for it.’ And it’s just not that,” said Charlene Welch, Council for the Homeless development and communications director. “People are paying part of their income, whatever they have. And they also have a variety of rules that they are expected to follow.”
It’s a community effort. Access Architecture designed The Meridian and The Elwood with trauma-informed principles, including green spaces, courtyards and calming colors. The Vancouver Housing Authority handles property management and service coordination, while Sea Mar Community Services Northwest provides services.
The NW Furniture Bank, which gives furniture to low-income people, furnished many Meridian apartments.
“A lot of clients say they feel like the apartment is just kind of like a box. It’s dry and safe, but it’s not very homey and doesn’t make them want to stay there,” said Haven Davis, the furniture bank’s client service specialist. “Having the furniture there makes people, I think, feel like they own something.”
Recovery and relapse
Despite permanent supportive housing’s successes, the model also has its drawbacks.
Leichner likes to walk his dog, Chloe, outside The Pacific, but he often runs into people buying and selling drugs. There’s a space under a stairwell where people gather to use.
“If I walk out here, the only question I get is, ‘Do you got any blues?’” Leichner said, using a common term for fentanyl pills.
The Pacific and The Meridian are right across from one another and are close to other treatment services. Drug dealers tend to hang around the area, given the concentration of people with substance-use histories.
Anderson noticed this phenomenon at various recovery houses he’s stayed at. “Drug dealers are right where they receive cash,” he said. “They know a lot of the people are going to relapse. … If you’ve ever been on drugs, you’re gonna relapse.”
Local businesses say being near supportive housing is a challenge. Staff at Rainy Day Grooming across from The Meridian and The Pacific have noticed more people struggling with mental health and substance use. They see police in the area about once a week.
Groomer Keri Stone noted that many of these issues arise not from the housing residents themselves, but from drug dealers preying on those in recovery: “We have dudes that literally will — in the middle of broad daylight — stand right here and try to deal fentanyl to people coming in and out of Sea Mar for treatment.”
Leichner said he feels safe at The Pacific, but his girlfriend doesn’t. They’re trying to move out.
“It’s been rough,” he said. “I’m waiting for them to kind of weed out some of the really rotten aspects.”
As housing and service providers navigate these challenges, they understand there’s no one-size-fits-all model that can solve homelessness. For Anderson, clean and sober housing is what he needed to overcome addiction. For others, low-barrier supportive housing brings success. Clark County’s mix of options helps people choose the path that works best for them.
“There’s not really a book you can go by,” Anderson said. “Everyone is unique. Everyone has a different story.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.