Housing First: Addressing Homelessness & Mental Health

By Alexandra Salerno

“Housing is the key to everything else,” according to Bruce Gnesda, clinical administrator of comprehensive recovery services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC (WPIC).

While there are usually preconditions for most housing and homelessness programs, such as sobriety, WPIC’s homeless program acknowledges the difficulties in becoming clean or seeking mental health treatment without first having a roof over your head.

Just this summer, The Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania (HAP) recognized WPIC with an award for its leadership in the ‘community benefit’ category, for their homeless program.  

“Our philosophy is not only housing, but offering parallel services to address mental health concerns, too,” says Gnesda.  These parallel services are referred to as a blended service approach.

WPIC’s homeless program started in the late 1990s and has since provided more than 250 housing arrangements (primarily apartments) throughout Allegheny County, to homeless families and individuals who live with serious and persistent mental illnesses. Referrals come from Allegheny County, local shelter staff, clinicians, and outpatient programs, and then a blended service coordinator (BSC) discusses the program with qualified individuals.

When finding apartments for homeless individuals and families, the WPIC team asks those families where they are most comfortable in Alleghany County or where they grew up. From there, WPIC looks for housing in that area.

WPIC also provides permanent housing for 14 chronically homeless men in the Penn Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh, at the Safe Haven home. The house includes a bedroom for each resident, a communal kitchen and living area, garden and even the resident homeless program dog, Ziggy.

“This is the first time these men have had housing in more than a year,” said Gnesda. “It’s amazing to see these men adjust to a life that’s not outside.”

After placement, residents meet weekly with the BSC who links individuals and families to all forms of mainstream services ranging from substance abuse support to food banks.

Funding for the program comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides federal leasing dollars used as rental subsidies to provide homes for those in need.  Thus far, WPIC’s homelessness program has exceeded all of HUD’s benchmarks for how participants are doing, based on factors such as the number of previously homeless individuals who now have jobs.

The program has been a model for participants remaining in the program and ending the cycle of homelessness by providing mental health treatment.

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