- Associated Press - Sunday, April 29, 2018

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Pleased to settle into his new home on April 18, William Gower first wanted nothing more than a refreshing shower.

There was no furniture yet to move around on the white-tiled floors of the one-bedroom apartment. But the 37-year-old had bedding materials and a pillow.

Most importantly, the space was his own.

“It’s been a struggle,” Gower said. “Maybe it’s a new start for me. I’m happy.”

Gower is one of 1,005 homeless people helped by the Built for Zero Tulsa initiative, Tulsa World reported .

The program is an effort of A Way Home for Tulsa, which is a collaboration among 23 agencies dedicated to ending chronic and veteran homelessness.

The 1,000th person was placed earlier this month. Gower pushed a shopping cart of belongings to a car at the Day Center for the Homeless on April 18, receiving a lift to his new residence at the nearby Hewgley Terrace apartments.

Gower looks forward to experiencing better sleep and cooking for himself. He said it’s been a decade or so since he’s reliably had his own place, spending time in and out of incarceration and at homeless shelters.

He receives disability payments and hopes a stable living environment will help him to secure a part-time job. Program coordinators are working to find him some furniture.

If not for the program, “I could be outside in a sleeping bag camping out somewhere,” he said.

The Built for Zero Tulsa initiative was established in 2015 and originally dubbed “Zero: 2016 Tulsa” as part of a national campaign.

The initiative’s approach is a housing-first model. Or in other words, the top priority is finding a person permanent housing. The agencies then wrap the person in services to address issues, such as drug or alcohol abuse, mental-health needs, or lack of income.

Lajuana Washington is a housing navigator for the program. She said they find residency for people regardless of the barriers they face under the premise that solving a living situation makes it easier to start addressing other issues.

Washington, who works for the Community Service Council’s BRRX4Vets program, said Built for Zero is “one of the most impactful programs” in which she has been involved.

She recalled her work as case manager for a single mother of four children living in an abandoned home more than two years ago - ultimately one of her most severe cases.

The woman was locked out of her last home and didn’t have anything, certainly not the documents required for her kids to attend school.

The woman, a military veteran who served 12 years, was nationalized but couldn’t afford exorbitant fees to have Homeland Security give her new documents for her family.

She also had legal troubles hanging over her head - more than 10 warrants for driving without a license or insurance.

The Built for Zero program paid for birth certificates and Social Security documents, Washington said. She said it also helped the woman enroll in a specialty court, which removed most of her traffic issues and kept her out of jail.

“She’s doing well and still calls to follow up and let us know how her kids are doing,” Washington said.

In addition to easing access to services, the housing-first philosophy also yields a financial benefit.

Erin Willis, housing and homelessness coordinator at Community Service Council, said establishing permanent housing as soon as possible is more cost-effective than emergency room visits and incarceration.

She noted that there were about 122 veterans experiencing homelessness in Tulsa at the end of March, along with 114 persons enduring chronic homelessness. There likely is a duplication of a few individuals in those two numbers.

To try to better serve those individuals, A Way Home for Tulsa is rolling out a coordinated-entry initiative referred to as “All Doors Open.”

Willis said the goal is for every agency to use the same assessment and share data to better collaborate. That way, individuals have access to the same services at once rather than going to each specific agency.

A community-wide approach will allow case workers to triage individuals rather than operate on a first-come, first-served basis, Willis said. A detailed list of everyone who is homeless opens up a stronger ability to strategically reach out and match vulnerabilities with services.

They also hope to reduce duplication and the length of time people must wait for permanent housing.

“We want to essentially close all of the gaps,” Willis said.

Greer Fites, chairwoman of A Way Home for Tulsa, said an outreach effort that began last summer sends a team of three or four people to interact with people on the street to establish rapport, build trust and provide education on available services.

Fites said surpassing 1,000 people housed is a testament to the collaboration within the Tulsa community.

“Our goal is always to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring,” Fites said.

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