Columbus, Ohio—With more than 20 years of experience in social work, Michael Preston is a good judge of what kind of social support program actually makes a difference for disabled homeless and veterans. In his role as regional director of permanent supportive housing for Columbus, Ohio-based National Church Residences—the nation’s largest non-profit specializing in affordable seniors housing—he’s involved in a fast-growing collaborative effort to help house those in need.
“One of the things I really love about permanent supportive housing is the transformative quality of it. You can see folks going from a state of homelessness to a self-sufficient state with their own apartments—it’s a real solution to a social problem of homelessness,” Preston said in a recent interview.
Due to the success of its supportive housing initiatives, NCR has expanded outside of Ohio to Atlanta and will grow from 590 units of supportive housing today to nearly 1000 units in the next two to three years. The growth speaks both to the urgent need for such housing and the willingness of private, local and federal support to help fund it. NCR partners with veterans and homeless services providers for a comprehensively supportive living experience.
Among the programs garnering the most attention are NCR’s veterans homes. Last month funds were designated for a veteran-focused supportive living home in Atlanta, Georgia, where NCR already has seven senior-focused assets.
“Serving formerly homeless and disabled veterans is very important to the mission of National Church Residences,” said President & CEO Thomas W. Slemmer. “Permanent supportive housing can give them stability, more self-sufficiency and a chance at a new life in a way that’s cost-effective for the government. They served our nation, and we owe them that.”
Read on for more of our interview with Michael Preston.
MHN: Tell us about the constituency the NCR supportive housing units serve?
Preston: Predominantly, our permanent supportive housing communities focus on disabled and homeless residents. We also have specific communities set aside for our disabled homeless veterans. Additionally, in a lot of our communities we have carve outs, for example, we work with our local Mental Health Board and have set aside units for mental health consumers that are coming out of group homes. Working with the state of Ohio, we have designated units for folks coming out of nursing homes that no longer need nursing home care. Our portfolio includes 590 units of permanent supportive housing.
MHN: What plans do you have for expansion?
Preston: We will be adding 300 units over the next couple of years. We have a 40-unit building opening this summer, and three new buildings opening next year. We also were just awarded HomeFunds from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to develop 95 units of permanent supportive housing for veterans in Atlanta.
MHN: What are some of the factors that ensure success of this type of housing?
Preston: The idea of “Housing First” has been pivotal to our success. Housing First is an approach that assumes that people are likely to become stable when you give them a safe and affordable place to live. We meet people where they are. We don’t have a lot of restrictions on our housing in terms of credit or other requirements. We try to be inclusive in getting folks in, start where they are, so we work with folks. Once we get them in a safe and stable environment, then we can work with them in small steps to address some of the barriers that they’ve had to rebuilding their lives, especially employment.
MHN: What does the management and operations model look like?
Preston: We use a blended management approach. Property management, resident services, maintenance, the 24-hour front desk staff, all work together and meet once a week to review building operations and resident progress, and come up with retention plans for folks that are struggling. The goal of everyone is the room is housing retention. We work very diligently with folks. We understand that if they fail out of this type of housing, there’s not much left for them.
We also integrate behavioral and health care services. The support in permanent supportive housing is an on-site service. We have a very comprehensive range of behavioral health care services, and we’re introducing primary health care onsite as well.
Finally, there’s a strong focus on community engagement and employment. Everyone that enters our buildings needs to be engaged 8 hours a month either in vocational training, work training, or volunteerism. We use this community engagement program as a pathway to employment, to help them get back into the workforce.
MHN: Have your efforts to help the residents find jobs been successful?
Preston: We have a campaign called “Make It Happen,” and this encourages residents to develop skills that lead to work, civic responsibility, build resumes, and get the skills needed to seek and keep employment. We have an employment coordinator at each of the sites. That person’s role is to develop an employment plan for everybody and assist them with reaching the best level they can. The residents in our buildings are a 100 percent disabled population, so they may not be able to manage full time work. It may be part time work or volunteer work. We rely heavily on community partners. Our employment coordinators link with employers in the area, so we have ready-made slots for folks to try out.
A traditional employment approach for this population would say folks need a 10-week course in job skills and resume writing and things like that. Our approach is a bit different. We use a hands-on approach. We will place folks in a position in the community as soon as possible. Then we’ll work with the employer to determine what challenges the resident needs to work on, and what personal strengths they can build on. When we kicked off the campaign, our goal was 100 jobs in 100 days, and we exceeded that by 20 jobs.
MHN: For your veterans housing projects, what’s unique to this population’s needs?
Preston: At all of our veterans projects, including a 75-unit community coming online soon in Toledo, Ohio, our model is that National Church Residences provides the property management and maintenance, and we partner with the U.S. Veterans Administration to provide additional services.
We purposefully site the buildings as close as we can to the VA centers. At the Commons at Livingston in Columbus, the VA center is just a mile or two down the road. In Toledo, the VA it’s practically across the street. There are transportation services to the VA available at each community.
MHN: How long do residents stay?
Preston: Residents sign a one-year lease. We renew each year, as long as they are within the terms of the lease and building rules. Different people stay for different lengths of time. Our average length of stay in permanent supportive housing is a little over two years.
We have folks for whom this is their final destination—the best place for them to live with these supports and services. We have other residents who use this as a steppingstone. Within our homeless population, among those that leave our program successfully, over 90 percent of them never return to the streets or shelters.