Brian Sharpe is on a tour with the manager of the apartment building he is considering as a new home. As they walk into the communal kitchen, a windowless room decorated with artificial leafy trees and edged by a row of soft couches and a large-screen television, Sharpe’s eyes go round.
“Oh my gosh, I could sit down here all day long,” he said. “I love kitchens.”
The room is large, sparsely outfitted with pots and pans and adorned with random, faded artwork. But it is cozy, dry and quiet – quite the opposite of the sleepless nights Sharpe is used to spending either in a shelter or on the streets.
Sharpe’s caseworker, Heather Lubinski, looks at him and says, “I thought you might like this.”
Heather and Brian have a long relationship that has brought trust and camaraderie to a challenging situation. Heather, a Catholic Social Services case worker based in the Brother Francis Shelter, met Brian more than 20 years ago, as he struggled to get off the streets. Lubinski is one of 17 case managers under the Homeless Family Services umbrella and one of two whose job is funded through a community benefit investment of $525,000 from Providence Health & Services Alaska for direct assistance for homeless families and individuals as well as staff expenses. Her job is critical: To establish trust among her clients and help them see there is hope for a better future. The model calls for social and emotional support for those who are experiencing homelessness, not only when they have no place to go, but also after they have found a home.
“We see people who are chronically homeless, and I think the longer a person’s been homeless, the more challenging it can be to find the right accommodation,” said Robin Dempsey, Homeless Family Services program director. “But this is a housing-first project, and if you can remove the homelessness from their life, they have an opportunity to thrive.”
Before touring the apartment, Sharpe and Lubinski stop at a phone store, where she helps him subscribe to a “lifeline” phone, meant to text and take phone calls. With this simple device, Sharpe can start looking for a job; potential employers now have a phone number to call if he fills out an application.
As Sharpe stands at the counter waiting for the paperwork to go through, he nods his head in the direction of Lubinski, who stands quietly by his side.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” said Sharpe. “We haven’t always seen eye to eye. But because of what we’ve been through, I couldn’t trust anybody more.”
Next it’s on to the apartments, which will be paid with Homeless Family Services funds, and reviewed periodically as newly housed persons adapt to a more independent life. The hope is that this nudge will help those experiencing homelessness a chance to break the pattern and get back on their own.
Apartment manager Chuck Scherbaum is a kind-eyed man who greets Sharpe with a smile and gives him a thorough tour – from where to check mail, to the laundry room, to the smoking block by the parking area and finally the kitchen – which appears to be Sharpe’s favorite spot so far.
They move on to the apartment. Housing for those with no income is in great demand, so the choices are limited. They open the door to a dorm-style unit by the elevators, with a small twin bed covered in a plastic protective mattress pad. Brian takes a look around and silently nods. The room is no bigger than a walk-in closet with a small window overlooking a parking lot below.
Heather watches Sharpe’s reaction, and quietly lets him know that there is a larger unit available at a slightly higher price. But Sharpe nods his head.
“This is good,” he says. “I’m not begging for choosing.”
When Scherbaum tells Sharpe that he can be in the room, with keys in hand, just a few hours later, the room goes still, and Sharpe takes a moment.
“You mean I can sleep here tonight?” he asks.
“Yes, we just have to fill out a few forms,” Heather reassures, and with that Sharpe’s cold nights on the street and restless, sleepless nights at the shelter, are over. He seems stunned, too surprised to say much more.
“I can sleep here tonight?” he asks again, still disbelieving.
“Yes,” Heather replies, looking back at him, in that moment returning some of the dignity that he lost so long ago.