The nonprofit Pathways Vermont uses the “housing first” model, based on the belief that housing is the foundation upon which a new life can be built. A permanent and safe home allows other problems to get addressed more effectively. Take Charlie, for instance.
Charlie is a grateful guy. “I’m thankful I grew up here in Vermont,” he says. “There’s just something about it. You could call it mystic, call it magic, call it whatever you want. There’s something about these green mountains that are pretty special.”
But Charlie hasn’t always had many reasons to be grateful. He struggled with gender identity when younger, and the resulting stress led to difficulties at school and in life. His mental health deteriorated as he grew older, and ultimately he found himself in a psych ward, receiving electroshock therapy. He didn’t want the treatment but was told that if he refused he would be thrown out, and Charlie didn’t have any place to go. Two days later, he left the hospital and attempted suicide.
Now Charlie lives in a Brattleboro apartment brightened by his artwork. He receives help with transportation and other needs exacerbated by his disability. Pathways Vermont helped transform Charlie’s life.
“Homelessness is an incredibly complex issue and each individual has their own story,” says Amos Meacham, the intake staff member at Pathways.
Some stories of Pathways clients sound much like those of any other housed, middle-class person until their lives reach a tipping point. Marsha started out as an award-winning journalist, but over time mental health issues led to homelessness. Phoelix, a Desert Storm veteran, had been homeless for five years before he found out about Pathways. John had a family and chaired the local Head Start board. When addiction took over, John’s life spiraled. Eventually he found himself living on the streets.
“Whatever the story, the intake process begins by getting to know each person,” says Meacham, “The individual may have significant needs that are not always evident at first. … We’re not making any assumptions. We’re not looking to dictate to people but to support what they believe would be helpful.”
Meacham’s job involves offering guidance as each person applies for housing subsidies. “We have to be sure they know there will be a fair amount of paperwork, and perhaps things have not worked out well for this person in the past, even when they put a lot of work into the process. Homelessness must be documented, but many homeless people choose to live off the grid, away from others, especially law enforcement, in hard-to-document situations … you must prove that you’ve been legally homeless for 12 months before you qualify for a subsidy.”
After completing the application process, the task of finding a home begins. The client must learn to be a tenant, which includes developing a good relationship with the landlord. Part of Pathways work entails matching landlords with service recipients to make sure its a good fit. Once moved in, the new tenant receives frequent check-ins from Pathways staff as long as they need it.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” says Meacham.
Rebuilding a life doesn’t end when an individual finds a home. Pathways offers a variety of programs as recipients learn to deal with the problems that have led to homelessness. The support offered may well come from staff members who themselves have experienced homelessness, addiction, mental health issues, incarceration, and other traumas. A peer support community center provides social activities, van outings, writing groups, and time to talk with others who have walked the same path.
In its first ten years, the organization eliminated homelessness for 800 Vermonters, prevented homelessness for 300 veterans, and provided 200 Vermonters with vocational counseling.
“The gratitude that I feel for Pathways and the amazing people who work there knows no bounds,” said Marsha, a service recipient. “I am beginning to feel whole again.”
The mission of Pathways may grow more difficult if the cost of housing continues to soar. But, for now, the organization continues to change lives for the better.
Charlie knows this well. “Pathways Vermont saved my life,” he says, “Plain and simple. If they weren’t here, I wouldn’t be here.”
Editor’s Note: The date of this article’s publication, January 26, is also the date of the annual Point-in-Time count, a national count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night. To learn more go here.