For Theodore Hughes, last September was rock bottom. The 54-year-old veteran of the U.S. Air Force, who had been suffering from depression and homeless, off and on for about a decade, found himself in a hospital in Biloxi, with suicidal thoughts.
It had been a long, tough journey for Hughes since he lost both of his casino jobs after Hurricane Katrina. He spent time between Mobile and Biloxi, doing what he could to survive.
“It was embarrassing, but sometimes a friend would say ‘you can stay here, you can shower here,” he said. “It’s embarrassing, but sometimes you would be on the street. You’d pick a place.”
For example, he’d stake a claim to a section of park. He’d eat at Mobile’s 15 Place, or rely on the help of strangers for food. Other times, he’d go hungry, or eat Ramen noodles when he could.
“It was scary because there are threats out there all the time,” he said. “Somebody wanting to take what you don’t even have.”
Hughes didn’t always have it that bad. When he got out of the service in 1992, at the age of 27, he began repairing slot machines at new casinos in Biloxi. He was diagnosed with depression at age 30 and applied for disability through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but was able to keep a couple steady jobs and even had an apartment overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
“I’ve got a nice apartment and I can walk to work,” he said. “I forgot that I had applied for my disability.”
He was forced to deal with the news his brother had committed suicide and then, as he puts it, “something called Hurricane Katrina hit.”
“There goes the two jobs, there goes the apartment,” he said. “It changed my life again. I got a letter from the VA saying they turned me down for my disability. It was just one depression thing after another.”
He was able to get disability benefits about six months later, but with the small stipend, he was still struggling off and on for years. It wasn’t just him, either. While spending time on Mobile’s streets, Hughes said he ran into a lot of veterans.
When he left the hospital in September, Hughes called Housing First Inc. and by year’s end, the nonprofit organization helped him find a place of his own at Country Club Woods Apartments.
“I’m ecstatic,” he said of the help he received. “I feel like I have a future. I feel like I can help people now.”
In a three-year period, Housing First has helped more than 650 homeless veterans in Mobile and Baldwin counties find shelter, Executive Director Eric Jefferson said. The program to help the homeless veterans has been so successful that the number of homeless veterans in Mobile is “functionally zero,” he said.
“What that means is that all those individuals that meet those criteria, who have been looking for assistance have been housed,” Jefferson said. “The other part of what that means is that anyone who shows up meeting those definitions should not take longer than 10 days to get them housed. There will be no extensive waiting list.”
Jefferson said Mobile has become the first city of its size in the country to reach “functionally zero” for homeless veterans and the chronic homeless, those who’ve been homeless consistently for a year or more. Housing First has also helped house more than 400 chronically homeless individuals since 1992.
“To our knowledge, and we follow this stuff, we are the first community to reach both of those,” he said. “There are cities that have housed their vets, such as New Orleans. Phoenix has housed all of their chronic veterans and state of Utah has housed all their chronic homeless, but no city has done both at this point, from the information we’re looking at.”
While Housing First has made strides in these two areas, the “literally homeless” numbers are still a work in progress. Literally homeless, according to a definition by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, are those who are living in places not meant for human habitation, those fleeing domestic violence, those who have an eviction notice signed by a judge or those who are deemed homeless by another entity.
On two separate occasions, Housing First has worked to house 61 veterans in 60 days and 25 veterans in three days, Director of Special Programs Tracey Burdine said.
The success of the program to house homeless veterans was spurred not only by national awareness of the issue that led the VA to contribute more than $1 million to the effort, but also by a unique tracking system established by Housing First.
“So, we collaborated our services and we developed a master list based on the clients we had coming through our coordinated assessment program and also based on the clients that were participating in other social services here,” she said. “For example, they may be coming here for housing, but they may be going to AltaPointe for mental health services. So, that’s how we developed this list.”
Burdine also credited what she called “community collaboration” for the success. For example, she cited several examples of area landlords, like Tonsmeire Properties in Baldwin County, stepping up to help the veterans. This has allowed many of the housed veterans, like Hughes, to take out leases in their own names and has helped them stay on track with the payments.
Additionally, she credited local Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations and American Legion groups for assisting. Several area employers, including some landlords and others such as Austal and Goodwill, have helped Housing First find jobs for the veterans, which is one reason Housing First has an 86 percent retention rate.
In the case of the chronic homeless, Housing First takes out a lease on about 130 units in Mobile and Baldwin counties and allows the individuals to sublease from them, Jefferson said.
The organization is also in the process of looking into developing its own affordable housing by purchasing an abandoned hotel near Airport Boulevard and Interstate 65. Once it’s purchased and renovated, clients could move in there, Jefferson said.
Hughes said he’s very thankful for the help Housing First has provided, which has allowed a more stable lifestyle.
“It went from darkness and hospital visits over in Biloxi to now, every day it’s sunshine for me,” he said. “These people have literally pulled me out of a ditch.”