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New housing complex makes concessions to homeless lifestyle

Hope Gardens copies success of Housing First model

12/15/2014

Buffalo News

 The spanking-new $5.6 million Hope Gardens complex on Buffalo’s East Side has everything a homeless woman could want – including a warm studio apartment and the security of a permanent roof over her head.

It also boasts huge concessions to the prior lifestyles of the 20 chronically homeless women moving into the complex Monday – like the opportunity to sleep outside, on padded benches.

Why would the chronically homeless want to sleep outside?

These women, many of whom have spent years on the streets, may be claustrophobic and not want to be cooped up inside. So the spacious gardens outside the Oberlin Avenue facility will include padded benches, allowing them to sleep there in the milder months, either under covered porches or uncovered.

“We’re giving them the chance to sleep outside, in a safe and secure environment, where they won’t be subjected to the horrible violence and abuse they’ve been subjected to on the streets,” said Marlies A. Wesolowski, executive director of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center, which sponsored the project.

The new Hope Gardens, opening today in the Sycamore-Walden neighborhood, is based on a fairly simple concept called “Housing First.”

The idea is to provide the chronically homeless with a permanent sanctuary to call home before attacking the trauma – whether it be physical abuse, drugs or alcohol – that may have put them on the streets.

And the hope is that this new home will provide a lot more than just housing.

“It will be a community of women helping women,” Wesolowski said.

Trying to break homelessness is a complex task. But the Housing First model has a proven track record here and across the country, with more than 90 percent of its residents staying in their homes. The idea is that people with a secure roof over their heads are more likely to accept help and try to turn their lives around, Wesolowski explained.

“The chronically homeless respond best to the Housing First model,” said Karen Carman, coordinator of homeless services for the Matt Urban Center. “Some of these women have been on the streets for over 10 years. Many of them don’t do well in shelters.”

The new two-story building – which runs from Oberlin to Ruhland Avenue, just south of Sycamore Street – was built with its residents in mind. Many of these women have suffered from some combination of rape, physical abuse, emotional abuse, alcohol, drugs or just a prolonged existence on the streets.

“These women tend to socially isolate themselves,” Wesolowski said. “We want to force them to come together, to socialize with each other.”

So each 600-square-foot studio apartment has only a kitchenette, with a microwave and small refrigerator, forcing the women to eat together in the large first-floor dining room, with its own fireplace.

A huge component of Hope Gardens is the spacious gardens just outside the dining room.

“Gardening is very important to the program,” Wesolowski said. “It’s therapeutic and relaxing, allowing the women to plant a seed and watch it grow.”

Hope Gardens, which already has a waiting list, caters to the chronically homeless, defined as having four or more homeless episodes in the past three years or being continually homeless for at least a year. Experts estimate that some 500 women currently are homeless in Western New York, with about 180 of them considered chronic.

The new residents, with an average age of between 45 and 50, will pay no more than 30 percent of their net income in rent, as they begin the slow process of getting back on their feet. Funding came from the New York State Homeless Housing Assistance Program, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Home Loan Bank and local foundations.

The therapeutic program recognizes that homeless women often are hypervigilant at night, when bad things happen on the streets. As a result, these women may be more alert and awake at night. So the counseling sessions and activities being offered in the large second-floor “sanctuary” room will be held mostly in the evening.

Other activities being offered to the women include art and music therapy, trauma counseling, poetry classes, yoga and arts and crafts.

A tour of the two-story Hope Gardens reveals plenty of special touches, like the predominantly green, leafy-patterned carpeting and the fact that many rooms look out onto the gardens. This is intended to give the women a sense of nature and nurture, bringing the outside world into their new, protected home.

Yet each of the 20 studio apartments will have its own special touches, configurations and color schemes, including the couches, linens, drapes and shower curtains.

“We want to make them different, because we want to give the women the sense of uniqueness,” Wesolowski said. “For a long time, these women haven’t felt special. We want them to feel special.” 

By

Gene Warner 



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