Housing That Works:
Powerful lessons from supported housing
BY KENDRA HURLEY
Schafer Hall, an East Harlem housing program for young people making the transition from foster care to independence, has had its ups and downs. A few years back, residents used to slam doors and play music loudly late into the night. They would curse out security, loiter in front of the building and sometimes become angry and threatening when asked to move on. Police or security filled out "incident reports" about unruly residents 15 times a month.
"It was a madhouse," recalls Terrance Talley, a towering man with a gentle manner who has run Schafer Hall since 2003. Many of the young people did not pay their rent and were not working. Those who did work would keep jobs for only about two months at a time. Schafer Hall, a 91-unit building run by the Lantern Organization, also houses families and singles with disabilities. But the older adults and families living in the building wanted nothing to do with the young.
Getting a program like this right requires finding a staff that is firm, patient and flexible and that knows how to set clear expectations for the residents. Most of all, it requires the leadership of someone like Talley, who knows how to engage all kinds of young people.
Talley decided his first challenge would be winning over the young people's trust and getting them to feel ownership over their new home. To do that, he organized a job club and social events, like potlucks. At first, only a few residents attended. But when several residents who attended Talley's job club got steady jobs, the others began to believe he might be able to help them, too. The job club became popular with nearly all of the young adults. "Word got around we were serious," he remembers.
Carmen, now 28, was not an early joiner. When she arrived at Schafer Hall the same year as Talley, she was thrilled to have her own studio apartment. But she was furious that she still had to obey institutional rulesâ€”like signing in and out with security. "She came in very angry, cursing out every staff member. She did not want any social services," says Talley.
Carmen would explode at caseworkers charged with renewing her housing voucher or public assistance. She lost her temper at bosses and anyone else who crossed her, says Talley. In her first months in the program, she jumped from one job to another and had little to do with others in the building.
"I used to smoke weed and ran the streets," Carmen remembers. "I was doing me."
Talley began to wonder what it would take to bring her into the fold. One day Talley convinced her to join a social gathering. Soon Talley discovered in Carmen that thing he searches for in every young person he works withâ€”what they're most passionate about. Carmen liked cooking.
Getting residents to cook and eat more healthfully was something Talley had pushing for a while. He'd even bought a cookbook for the building and encouraged everyone to share their favorite dishes at potlucks. Talley encouraged Carmen's cooking creations as well, which she began sharing with others in the building. Before long she was also helping Talley to organize social eventsâ€”building trips to Splish Splash, Great Adventures and movies.
All of this gave Talley an opening to work with Carmen on what he saw as her biggest weakness: her people skills.
Schafer staff practiced role plays with Carmen to help her see how she might appear to others. In one role play, a store owner forgets to take down its "hiring" sign after it had finished hiring. The store owner explains this to a job hunter, saying that she'll hold onto her rÃ©sumÃ© for the next time they are hiring. This fails to console the job hunter, who loses her temper at the store owner for not having taken the sign down.
"Wow, that's ignorant," Carmen said about the job hunter's reaction. It was like a light bulb had gone off for her, Talley remembers.
Talley began attending every benefit appointment with Carmen and always debriefed with her afterwards. At first, Carmen continued to blow up at these meetings, says Talley. When he tried to get to the root of why, she'd shrug, "Just the way the person looked at me."
Gradually that changed. Once when Talley sensed Carmen was about to explode at a Section 8 caseworker, he tapped her foot with his under the table. It was a simple gesture, one to make her aware of that moment just before she lost her temper. This time, she held it in. After the meeting, Carmen was bursting with pride. "I did good, yeah?" she said.
Another time, waiting in a mind-numbingly slow line for public assistance, a woman who was bottle-feeding a baby in front of Carmen accidentally squirted her in the face with milk. This was the type of thing that normally caused Carmen to explode. Talley braced himself. Then Carmen did something she never would have done if she were still the angry teenager who had signed herself into foster care after fleeing an abusive home. "She looked at me and said, 'Do you have a piece of tissue so that I can wipe my face?'" Talley remembers. "Then she said, 'That was good, Terrance, right?' And I said, 'Yes, Carmen, that was good.'"
Talley knows that these triumphs might sound small when one considers all it takes for a young man or woman to become completely independent. But it's little moments like this, says Talley, that add up to real change in a young person's life.
"Carmen benefited from constant attention," says Talley.
The key ingredient, he says, is having staff who know how to adapt, "somebody who's willing to take on that job full force and be really persistent, and talk to each person differently," says Talley. "You can't just come in here thinking you are going to be a dictator barking orders."
"Others began to believe he might be able to help them, too. The job club became popular with nearly all of the young adults."
Of course, there are more concrete things Talley did to turn around Schafer Hall's young adult program besides being flexible. He learned, for instance, that it was important to house the "leaders" who stir things up apart from the other residents. "Don't put them side by side, because they'll recreate the group home," he says, echoing some research that suggests housing young people with similar issues together is not a good move. "They'll all be smoking weed. They'll bond together and form units. Then when two are mad at each other, the whole unit is fighting."
He also overhauled the building's intake process, realizing that he needed to be very clear during interviews with potential residents that the goal of Schafer Hall was not merely to house them but to make them self-sufficient. Just sending this message, he says, created a "totally different dynamic." He rarely rejects prospective tenants, but sometimes young people decide on their own not to come after they understand what the program entails.
Today, in Schafer Hall's sunny lobby, residents say "hey" to each other. Young people and older adults alike pop into Talley's office to use the fax machine, the computers, or just chat. With comfortable couches and chairs, it's set up to encourage lingering. Talley says the building now averages only about two incidents a month. Of the 25 young adults currently in the building, none is on public assistance and 22 are working, even though all have disabilities. (Two of the three who aren't employed cannot work because of their disabilities.) Seventeen of those 22 who are employed hold fulltime jobs, many as security guards or in retail. One works as a reality show casting agent for MTV, says Talley. Two no longer qualify for Section 8 because their incomes are too high, and they've chosen to pay full rent while they finish school and find a new place to live.
When Talley speaks of the triumphs of the few original residents who still live there, he beams. One young man who loved sports began volunteering to work with young people at the Police Athletic League. Eventually he got certified to teach sports, became a coach's assistant at a recreation complex in Yorkville and is now the head coach.
Another young woman "came in disillusioned with the foster care system" and "mistrustful," says Talley. But with the help of an on-site therapist, she began opening up to staff at Schafer Hall, updating them regularly on her accomplishments: first that she'd completed her first year at City College, then that she was graduating from City College, next that she'd passed the LSATs, and now that she has been offered a scholarship to Ohio State Law School, which Talley helped her secure. "She wants to be a lawyer for children's rights," says Talley, nodding, as if he expected it from day one.
Carmen is a success story, too. She now lives with her daughter in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, which she pays for with her Section 8 voucher and her income as a licensed security guard working at two different jobs. Carmen continues to check in with Schafer Hall whenever she's in the area, usually to look at job listings, to see if there's something better for her out there, but sometimes just to say hi. And she's arrived somewhere she never anticipatedâ€”she says she's in a good place in life. "I'm older now," she says. "I have to worry about my daughter. It's not about me anymore. I'm happy where I'm at now."