Photo of Anthony Hopkins sitting on couch in his living room
credit: Tatiana Brown

“For the first two months, I checked my mailbox every day knowing I didn’t have no mail. And I carried around my lease every day in my pocket like it was a checkbook, because I still couldn’t believe I had my own apartment.”  

Anthony Hopkins had been sleeping in front of a McDonald’s in 2008 when an outreach worker from the nonprofit homeless outreach program Pathways to Housing D.C. approached him to talk about finding an apartment. The Pathways worker set up an appointment for the next day with Hopkins.  

Hopkins skipped it and expected that to be the end of the matter. But the outreach worker found him again a day later. It took four years to build up their relationship.  

In 2012, Hopkins toured an apartment and was renting it eight days later. “[Pathways] never turned their back on me,” he said.  

Through innovation in receiving and using funding and by prioritizing a physical presence on the streets, Pathways is helping people experiencing homelessness in downtown D.C. This past winter, from November, 2017, through March, 2018, they helped 18 people into housing at a more than 90 percent success rate.  

According to Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways, the District’s “coordinated entry” system, while succeeding for many, was not prioritizing people with severe mental health and substance abuse problems. The system is used by all city homeless services providers to assess people’s needs and order them by level of “vulnerability” in a database used to fill all housing programs throughout the city. Her organization stepped in to reach out to the people they saw being left behind, and their geographic presence downtown has been a crucial factor in Pathways’ success.  

“What’s super challenging about this kind of work, one, is finding people; two is building relationships,” she said at an Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting in March. “Three is the speed: if we don’t have access to people, if we don’t see them on a regular basis, it becomes very hard for them to trust us to do our work.” 

Hopkins’ story bears this out. He said he did not trust the outreach worker at first, but the worker’s determination to find him and follow up and his persistence in placing him into Pathways’ system won him over.  

Pathways also uses a variety of funding sources in innovative ways. For instance, the Downtown D.C. and Golden Triangle business improvement districts fund Pathways’ street outreach services, while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds housing vouchers for rental assistance. The program’s policy is that tenants pay 30 percent of their income, even if they do not have any income.  

Securing grants from HUD enabled Pathways to offer services to ease the transition into housing for the people it serves. “What we wrote into the HUD contract was not just the rent, but something also very critical: the security deposits, the application fee … the furniture, the household items, the background checks,” Respress said.  

Services like this helped Hopkins settle into his new home in comfort. “When I moved into my apartment they got me a bed … a couch, dishes, and they gave me a $300 gift card for Target,” he said. 

Many Pathways clients qualify for disability benefits and the organization helps them get the documentation they need to apply. According to Hopkins, many people experiencing homelessness have never attempted to navigate the housing system and do not have the resources they need to do so. For example, when he was approached by Pathways, the only identification he had was a non-driver’s identification card.  

With a combination of funding from the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, HUD, and its own fundraising, Pathways also helps its clients get access to mental health care, which follows them when are placed into housing. According to Respress, access to mental health services often continues to be an important part of Pathways services after clients are placed into housing. “After people are moving into housing, [they] are voluntarily seeing our psychiatrist.”  

Hopkins said these services were crucial for his own case. He was addicted to cocaine when he was approached by Pathways, but the organization followed up with him to help him recover after he was placed in an apartment. According to him, it is not useful to demand, as some programs do, that the people who receive assistance are clean before placing them into housing. He said housing itself becomes an incentive to get clean.  

“People need some kind of encouragement,” Hopkins said. “If you can get them a place, they’re off the street. So now they can say, ‘Oh, I’m off the street now, I got some responsibilities.”  

This philosophy, that housing must be a priority without prerequisites, is known as Housing First. And implementing it requires bridging a gap between theory and practice, according to D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness Director Kristy Greenwalt. “[Pathways] has figured out how to fill that gap in a pretty substantial way,” she said.  

A significant challenge is how to scale up Pathways’ success to be applicable to the entire city, Greenwalt said. One challenge Greenwalt identified is how to provide psychiatric evaluations to people who do not have health benefits and have no previous diagnosis.  

Respress acknowledges that Pathways enjoys a unique ability to offer these services. “While we have at Pathways access to psychiatrists and [clinical social workers] who can help with Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) referrals, most outreach programs struggle to have that kind of resource,” she said.  

Finding funding for some medical services remains a challenge for Pathways. Respress said the organization will continue to seek creative ways to pay for “service time” that cannot be billed to Medicaid.  

“It’s easier to tackle something in a pilot [program] and then figure out how to scale,” Greenwalt said.  

The tenants assisted by Pathways, meanwhile, will continue to benefit from the organization’s success. Hopkins is now working as a peer specialist with Catholic Charities. He appreciates the help he received through Pathways to Housing D.C., but recognizes the threat that homelessness continues to pose for many.  

“Homelessness doesn’t discriminate,” Hopkins said. “Many people are one paycheck away.”