After being chronically homeless for years, Donald Hamilton is happy to call the Garfield Place Apartments Safe Haven home.
“Out there on your own, it’s bad. I’ve been in poverty housing, went from shelter to shelter and have been out on the street. I’ve spent the last 30 years on disability and I’m in constant pain every day. I finally got tired of not having the things I really wanted and I decided to find my way back,” Hamilton says.
Once a successful welder, Hamilton’s health quickly declined after a second floor porch fell in on him. “I broke everything and was in a wheelchair for two years. At one point, my healthcare providers told me I would never walk again. It took a lot of therapy but eventually I was able to walk-but I couldn’t work.”
Hamilton found his way to Peter and Paul Community Services, a nonprofit human services agency in St. Louis, Mo., that provides housing and supportive services to those who are chronically homeless. Their newest program, the Safe Haven, is designed to reach people like Hamilton and provide them with supportive services. Garfield Place Apartments provides supportive housing for clients and participants of the Safe Haven program. WUOT alumni Adam Pearson, OTD ’11, OTR/L, program director of the Safe Haven Program and site manager for Garfield Place Apartments, helped develop an application process for residents.
“We created an assessment that gauges an individual’s need for housing. We asked about their past history in housing, if they were able to pay their rent, whether they needed additional assistance with medications, and if there had been a history of altercations with previous landlords or other tenants. If there were such issues in the past, we gave them priority,” Pearson explains. “The reasoning was we wanted to make sure our program truly serves those with the greatest need. If someone applied who was fairly stable and infrequently homeless, they may not need our services as much as someone with a mental illness or other chronic health conditions does.”
Formerly the Garfield School, the facility has rented out all of its 25 one-bedroom apartments available for lease since opening its doors in October. Each resident receives assistance with his or her rent in the form of Shelter Plus Care vouchers. The state-funded program provides alternate revenue for Garfield Place Apartments, which has a $650,000 yearly operating budget (approximately $26,000 per person). Now that all the units are occupied, Pearson is focusing his attention on how to improve the activities of daily life for the residents and engage them in the community.
“Our residents are taking inventory of their skills sets and are figuring out what their individual goals and capabilities are. Once we have established what those are, we can plug people into the community and volunteer opportunities that give them meaning,” Pearson says. “One thing I learned during the development of this project is the importance of community engagement and support. We spoke with four different neighborhood associations and made presentations to the members to help them understand we provide permanent housing. All our residents sign one-year leases. The fewer people there are on the streets, the better the community can be as a whole. My goal is to have our residents be present at the neighborhood association meetings around the area so they can be a part of the conversation on how we can make our community stronger together.”
Pearson was originally drawn to occupational therapy because of his interest in human function and achievement. “For me, I have always enjoyed helping people achieve small goals. Originally, I wanted to work in a pediatric setting. However, the more exposure I had with low income and homeless populations made me realize these were individuals with mental illness, spinal cord injury, stroke-health conditions that OTs typically work with. However, the added burden they face of not having income or shelter makes their conditions exponentially worse.
A statistic I find startling is those who are chronically homeless have an average lifespan of 42 to 52 years of age. The average lifespan of the general population is around 78. According to the literature and best practices, if we can provide stable, supportive housing, we can increase somebody’s lifespan and make life more meaningful for them,” Pearson says.
That has certainly been the case for Hamilton.
“I want to be more than just a resident here. I can’t weld anymore, but I can help out with gardening, sweeping floors, whatever needs to be done around the building. I also visit the shelter I was at before and encourage other homeless people not to give up. I want to let them know they are not forgotten and they can get to where I am. I’m ready to give back to the community. You can’t live unless you give,” Hamilton says.
Pearson credits the Program’s faculty, staff and his classmates for teaching him how much occupational therapy can offer the community at large. “The world is a big place and there are so many people who could use the services of OT and not just in the traditional sense. Being a part of a transdiscipinary team that surrounds the individual with services so they can accomplish their goals is very rewarding. Traditional OT is just a small part of what we can do as practitioners. The big part is if we can help with issues like homelessness, then everyone’s participation in the community improves,” Pearson says.
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