Housing Initiatives Inc. 20th anniversary party
Providing hope for the homeless
by A. David Dahmer
Housing Initiatives Inc. is celebrating 20 years of providing permanent housing for people in the Madison community with severe and persistent mental illnesses who are experiencing homelessness because of it.
The official celebration will take place on Thursday, Aug. 21, with food, fun, and music at the John Wall Family Pavilion of Tenney Park on Madison’s near east side.
“This is something that is solvable. We are an example of how it can be solved,” Housing Initiatives Inc.’s Executive Director Dean Loumos tells The Madison Times in an interview at the Housing Initiatives headquarters on Madison’s north side. “We want to make sure that the community is aware that the conversation is not strictly about survival any more. We need to develop supportive housing for the folks that really need it and get them off the street.”
The vision of Housing Initiatives is that every person who is homeless and has a mental illness shall have high-quality housing.
“There are a disproportionate amount of minorities — currently it’s about 55 percent of our clients — and it’s been that way since the very beginning,” says Loumos. “The overwhelming total of our clients come from low-income families. Although some of them have successfully completed education — I have some folks with higher-education degrees — their ability to support themselves only lasts for a while.”
On top of his job as the executive director of Housing Initiatives Inc., Loumos has been a Madison School Board member since April of last year.
The profile of Housing Initiatives and the plight of those who are mentally ill and trying to find a place to live was raised with Loumos’ successful run for that MMSD school board seat. “When you run for office, you have to explain what you’ve been doing for 20 years,” Loumos says. “This upcoming party will celebrate our 20 years. Not everybody has heard about it, but we want people to know about it and really pump up Housing Initiatives presence in the community as we try to expand the conversation around homelessness.”
As a school board member, Loumos is well aware that housing policy directly affects education policy. “Even this last year, we had 84 more homeless kids than we did the year before. And the year before was the most we ever had. A full 5 percent of our 27,000 students were homeless this year,” Loumos says. “How we set up our educational delivery system to them is a logistical nightmare. Our most important thing is our kids and I think the policymakers in our three governing bodies — the City, County, and School Board — are looking at ways at collaborating that we’ve never done before. It’s not because it’s a good idea; it’s because it’s imperative for our future.”
Has society’s feelings about mental illness changed in the 20 years since Housing Initiatives Inc. first started?
“I think awareness is better. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the social media explosion. People are much more aware of things as they happen,” Loumos says. “And then you have some extraordinary cases like [actor] Robin Williams. He was devastated to the point where he thought his only option was to just end it. It’s a horrible feeling to be in. And he had so much. Imagine what is going on with somebody ordinary living on the streets who is depressed and doesn’t have any support.
“I always thought that this was something the community needs to respond to. This is something the village needs to find a solution to,” he adds. “Where we fail to meet that responsibility is a problem for me.”
Since 1994, Housing Initiatives Inc. has quietly worked behind the scenes to provide permanent housing to mentally ill individuals who are homeless because of their illness. Housing Initiatives was started by the same family that started National Alliance of Mentally Ill (NAMI). “NAMI started that whole concept of Program of Assertive Community Treatment — PACT,” Loumos says. “Now, it’s common practice all around the country.”
Originally, Housing Initiatives served as the intermediary between the homeless individuals and private landlords to provide supportive permanent housing. With the assistance of federal funding, they expanded its operations by purchasing scattered site, small multi-unit buildings in which to house people eligible for the program.
“When we got started we found a grant that is just like Section 8, except that it is only for those people who are mentally ill and homeless,” Loumos remembers. “So we’ve been administering this grant now for 20 years and over the years we’ve put almost 500 people into housing with rent support so they could live independently.”
They put their first person into housing in 1995 and also bought their first property that same year. The first couple of years were pretty rough for the young agency. “For the first few years I was here, we didn’t know if I was going to make my salary,” Loumos smiles.
Over the years, Housing Initiatives got better and better at developing properties and generating income. “Right now, we have 22 properties with a total of 94 apartments,” Loumos says. “We also took over a struggling condominium complex on Allied Drive so we manage a 72-unit condominium complex there.
“As we developed, we became successful in getting people into housing and keeping them there and we also began to realize that we could use our structure to help stabilize neighborhoods that were struggling,” Loumos adds.
Housing Initiatives Inc.’s influence in stabilizing struggling neighborhoods can be seen on all sides of town. But, Loumos says, there is much more need to be met. At any given time there are over 100 individuals eligible for the Housing Initiative Inc. program, but, unfortunately, there’s not sufficient housing to meet the need.
“We would love to get bigger and help more people. At the same time, the funding that was available to us to acquire properties has shrunk dramatically … So it’s really difficult to acquire more properties,” Loumos says. “We need to figure out a way to do that.
“Nevertheless, we are optimistic. The seriousness that the national policymakers are putting towards ending chronic homelessness — particularly veteran homelessness — is getting across-the-aisle support,” Loumos adds. “There are currently 50,000 homeless vets. There are anywhere between 90 and 120 right here in Madison. The problem there is that we have to find them some units to move them into. There will be rent support so we have to find some collaborative landlords who can help us out to make sure once they move in [that] these guys will have the proper support. There are some that are just hard outs … but I will take them. But I need to find some properties.”
Michael Basford, the associate executive director at Housing Initiatives Inc., is optimistic about what he has seen in the Madison community as they up their efforts to tackle the issue of homelessness.
“In the past when we’ve talked about homelessness, we’ve talked about poverty issues. A lot of people say, especially from the City [of Madison], ‘That’s the County’s issue.’ The County at the same time is saying, ‘We are taking care of this but we have no mandate and therefore we get no funding,’” Basford says. “We’ve now moved past that where the community feels that this is an all-hands-on-deck issue. It’s a County issue and a City issue and a neighborhoods issue and a public sector issue and a faith community issue. People are now realizing that they are all part of the solution.”
“I do think the political will has changed on this issue,” adds Loumos. “The mayor here has signed on to a national movement, the Mayors [Challenge] to End Veteran Homelessness by the end of next year. It’s being chaired by [First Lady] Michelle Obama. From the top down, homelessness is getting a lot of attention.”
Homelessness will get a lot of attention at the Housing Initiatives Inc. 20th anniversary party at Tenney Park Aug. 21. There will be great food and music by Jim Schwall. There will be many great silent auction items people can bid on including a delicious Greek dinner for eight prepared by Loumos himself. Another intriguing auction item is a framed piece of Lennon Music stationery with John Lennon’s autograph that Loumos obtained himself in the late 70s when he was in Manhattan working for an organization called the Intercommunal Survival Committee. The mother of one of the people that Loumos worked with at the time was Helen Seaman — John Lennon’s nanny. .
“Helen introduced us and they liked what we were doing and they gave us money for our free food program,” Loumos remembers. “They needed someone to help close up Apple Recording Offices so they paid us to help with that. I had the last bag from the office and John Lennon was standing there. I asked him what he wanted me to with it and he told me I could have it.”
Loumos pulled out some of the John Lennon stationary that was in the bag and asked the ex-Beatle to sign it. “I put them in a file folder and off I went,” Loumas remembers. “I’ve been carrying around this file folder for 36 years. And then I was thinking, well, we need to raise some money and I thought his autograph would be perfect!
“The 20th anniversary event is going to be a nice party. For us, it’s the first time that we’re having a huge, major fund-raiser that we will continue to follow up on,” Loumos adds. “Our board and I are considering beginning a capital campaign that we’re going to need to do to acquire some properties. It’s the only way. There will be people that nobody will house but us … it’s as simple as that. We can do that, but we’re going to need to buy some more properties. We are always full. That’s one of the biggest problems that we have.”
While Housing Initiatives has been well recognized for their work — in 2011 they were awarded the “Door Knocker” award by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — nothing comes close the individual satisfaction they get from getting their clients into the housing they need.
“We have a waiting list of about 100 people right now and when I get to take somebody off that waiting list and bring them and their case manager here and tell them that we’re going to put them in their own apartment and that they get to move in tomorrow … that’s a very powerful moment for me. That’s why I get up every day,” Basford says. “I don’t have those moments very often or often enough, but when they happen it really makes it worth it.”
Housing Initiatives Inc. is literally a lifesaver for many people who have nowhere else to turn to. It’s very emotional for both Loumos and Basford to talk about people who have been saved from the streets spending their last moments on earth in their own comfortable and loving homes.
“We see people who have been living on the streets — sometimes for decades — and when you’re living like that you start getting a whole host of physical health issues,” Basford says. “While it’s very sad when one of our clients die, it’s also good to know that for at least the last 2-3-4 years of their lives they were able to achieve some level of comfort.”
Life expectancy for someone with mental illness, Loumos adds, is 10 years shorter than the average. “It’s very poignant. We’ve had people die in their own beds. It’s what everybody deserves,” Loumos says. “I want to die in my own bed. It’s respectful. That part is satisfying for us. We did right by that person.”
As they move beyond their first 20 years of existence, Loumos says that Housing Initiatives Inc. wants to continue to expand the conversation around mental illness and homelessness and to continue to collaborate to find solutions to a problem that he feels is solvable.
“Shelters and little houses are great. But that’s just survival. That’s wonderful. We don’t want people dying in the streets. But this has to end at some point,” he says. “Don’t we want to be the community that ends this? I do. This is doable. We can be the community that helps end this stuff.”
Come join the Housing Initiatives’ 20th anniversary celebration Aug. 21, 5-8 p.m. at the John Wall Family Pavilion in Tenney Park. There will be food and beverages and music by Jim Schwall and Chris Aaron.