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Homeless get places to call their own

Mary Hunter's new apartment is small — one bedroom, one bathroom, with a tiny stove and refrigerator in the kitchen.

Furniture is sparse, and what she has was donated.

But on Hunter's first night in her new place, as she sat on a couch with a hole in one cushion, tears of joy streamed down her cheeks as she talked of the path that had brought her there.

"It's a blessing from God," she said. "I'm still in shock. I am ecstatic."

Hunter said she's been homeless for the past 15 years and spent the 13 years before that in prison.

She takes six psychiatric medications and is a recovering drug addict who said she's been clean for three months.

"I have keys," she said in amazement as she locked the door behind her Tuesday night. "I never ever want to go back to that drug life ever again."

Hunter would probably still be on the streets if not for Shelter Plus Care, a federal Section 8 housing program administered through the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Housing Authority.

The program is intended to provide permanent housing for homeless people with disabilities. It specifically targets people with mental illness, drug or alcohol addictions, or HIV and related diseases, all of which are considered disabilities under the program's guidelines.

"This really is the hardest-to-serve population," said Bren Jones, Section 8 manager for the housing authority.

The federal program has been in place in Lexington for some time. But it has been inundated with applications from the homeless since February, when Austin Simms, executive director of the housing authority, put out a call for referrals from local community service providers.

In his letter to providers, Simms said that Shelter Plus Care had $50,000 available for housing the homeless that would be "subject to recapture" by the federal government if not used by March 31.

More than 250 people have applied since then.

Jones said she is sorting through the applications and expects to have at least 45 homeless people housed by March 31.

She said she will continue placing people after that, since the grant funds will be replenished when the new program year begins April 1.

Permanent if they qualify

Depending on people's income and how much they spend for expenses such as medicine, Shelter Plus Care will pay either all of their rent and utilities or 70 percent of their rent, with the participants being responsible for the other 30 percent, as well as their utilities, Jones said.

They also receive support services such as mental health counseling, job training and mentoring.

They must go through an annual recertification process, but as long as they still meet the qualifications, "it's permanent housing," Jones said.

The number of people who get apartments will be limited by the amount of money available to cover their rent, as well as the amount of community support services available.

The government requires that support services be made available to match the amount of rental assistance given program-wide.

Jones said she's been working with 10 to 15 apartment management companies and private landlords to line up apartments for those who will get housing under the program, and many have helped by waiving their application fees and discounting their security deposits.

She said Stone Bridge Apartments on Village Drive has made 25 two-bedroom apartments available.

The majority of the applications for housing have come through the Catholic Action Center, which has been helping people get their paperwork ready to apply.

"The folks are so happy. They've got hope," said Ginny Ramsey, co-founder of the center. "I haven't seen such hope in a long time."

The center is also collecting donations of furniture and household items to help program participants furnish their apartments, and it is lining up teams of mentors to help them be successful in their new surroundings.

"You can't take folks who have been sitting on the streets forever, put them in their own place and not have a connection," she said. "We need the community to help with this."

Employment Solutions is one of the agencies that could provide job training and placement to some Shelter Plus Care participants.

Rick Christman, chief executive officer of Employment Solutions, said the program is part of the "housing-first" model of dealing with homelessness.

Traditionally, he said, many cities such as Lexington have invested in transitional housing such as shelters for the homeless. The idea is that those in need can graduate to permanent housing once they've resolved the problems that contribute to their homelessness.

"They keep serving the same people over and over again," Christman said.

The housing-first model works on the assumption that by putting homeless people in permanent housing, community agencies can better help them resolve their other problems.

"Get someone shelter, and then (get) the community to surround them with the care and the connections," Ramsey said.

Christman said many of the people who will get housing under Shelter Plus Care might not want or be able to hold down a regular job, but "if we could help 10 percent, that would be good," he said.

'Just getting a place'

Sharon Garrity and Bobby Halcomb said they are applying for housing under the program. Garrity said she has health problems, and Halcomb said he struggles with alcoholism.

They said they sometimes sleep on chairs at the Catholic Action Center. Other times, they camp out or stay in a motel room when they can get enough money together. They said an apartment would be the first step for helping them live a more stable lifestyle.

"It's hard to work when you don't get but about three or four hours of sleep," Halcomb said.

"It really wouldn't matter if it was a bed," Garrity added. "Just getting a place to lay down."

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