New year, new hope, new homes for the homeless

Renters will pay one-third of their income, which for some will start out at zero, for one of the 11 new apartments.

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WALLA WALLA -- Today the Paine Development construction site might not be much to look at.

A row of walls is framed and centered in a nearly hidden pocket of Walla Walla, the brown lumber camouflaged by a gloomy winter landscape.

Come July, however, Steve Moss expects family life to flow and ebb in the 12 apartments planned for the site.

Restored life, said Moss, who heads Blue Mountain Action Council.

That move-in date represents a goal more than two years in the making and part of a much longer time line to end homelessness here. On an acre or so of land, 11 families now living in shelters or transitional housing will move into the new two- and three-bedroom apartments under a concept Moss calls "Housing First."

It's known as permanent, supportive housing and under the umbrella of BMAC Paine Development will offer a way out of homelessness for some.

The ideology says that affordable housing combined with a range of services helps people live stable, productive lives. Not only the homeless, but those doing the best they can without permanent employment

Most folks in such a situation struggle with layered and complicated issues, experts agree.

Alcoholism, substance abuse, long-term disabilities and mental illness can often stand in the way of a person's ability to secure stable housing, Moss said. And those problems can end up costing an entire community plenty in resources.

No one wants to be homeless, according to the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Providing this sort of permanent housing essentially costs the same dollars as keeping a homeless person in a "revolving door" of crisis care and emergency housing, the national nonprofit states. In partnership with BMAC, Paine Development is part of a 10-year plan to create 150,000 new units of supportive housing by 2012.

Phase One, which includes 12 apartments -- one will house a resident manager -- and a community center for the complex, has a price tag of $2,538,000.

Several local and state partners came on board to fund the concept, including Washington State Housing Trust Fund, Walla Walla County, the Donald and Virginia Sherwood Trust, Federal Home Loan Bank and ohers, even individuals, Moss said.

People moving into the new apartments will have to meet some traditional expectations, such as agreeing to standard landlord-tenant rules and obeying the law.

No sex offenders will be allowed to rent, since the complex sits next to Lincoln Alternative High School.

Renters will pay one-third of their income, which for some will start out at zero. That rent will secure a clean apartment with basic furnishings and sporting high-use materials on surfaces and floors.

Every family will also be custom-fitted with a plan to meet individual needs. And those will be discerned by a relationship developed between tenant and the on-site case manager.

It's truly the key component to Paine Development's success, Moss believes -- a way to gently parent families into self-sufficiency.

Eventually, the thinking goes, people will become more self-reliant, thus making it more sensible to move forward and out than paying one-third of their income to stay at the complex, he said.

"Information suggests about a 20 percent natural turnover through better income," Moss said. "And some will be evicted."

Moss and others took training in the Supportive Housing model, which featured best practices from across the country. That exposure to the concept of stabilizing lives through permanent homes took some getting used to, he conceded.

"First of all," Moss said, "I feel most people want to do good by their lives. But they have to want to make a change."

But it began to make sense -- first the housing and the sense of safety and permanency it brings, then comes looking beyond mere survival. Looking forward, Moss explained.

It circles back to the relationship with the case manager and the plans that come out of those discussions. Family services may include taking financial, cooking and parenting classes, learning job skills, treating addictions.

And learning to be good neighbors. Property standards will be maintained by the resident manager, who will work with law enforcement and other agencies to foster a safe and prductive environment.

It is the hope that Paine Development families ­-- who are already living in the area, Moss emphasized. "We're not importing people" -- will learn by example to take care of their homes and their lives. "This provides for ability to establish a positive structure."

Those who don't follow the service plan will be allowed to stay in their apartment as long as they pay rent and don't break laws, he said, adding that there is a possibility once a family moves in, they may never leave.

That said, "we're not in the business to set people up for failure. There will be some, but we're looking for many more successes."

Homelessness is an old issue, even as "Housing First" is relatively new, Moss added. "It's a new way of looking at issues we've been dealing with for a long, long time."

He expects applications for Paine Development to be available in the spring.

For more information, call 509-529-4980.

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