John Ray Munsey, Jr. saw his girlfriend die of a fentanyl overdose right in front of him. He knew his life of substance abuse and struggling with anger and depression and especially chronic homelessness, including long stints living in the woods, absolutely had to change.
Fast forward three years — when Munsey got the keys to a new apartment, and a new life.
That birthday present—the timing was serendipitous—and Munsey’s personal success story is reflective of the state’s two-year-long effort to end chronic homelessness. He is one of the final wave of chronically homeless people to be placed in long-term housing as governor has declared an “end” to the phenomenon.
The “end” doesn’t mean that all chronically homeless people are in their new homes. It means agencies have worked them and gotten them into the program. Like Munsey, they are in the process of being matched with apartments and given the keys.
“Seeing her die in front of me turned it around,” he said of his girlfriend. After that moment, roll the clock ahead three years to just two weeks ago, Feb. 1, 2017. That’s when Munsey took the keys to his beautiful new apartment, unit # 205 at in the supportive housing section of New Reach’s Geller Commons off Shepherd Avenue in Hamden. It also happened to be his birthday.
The apartment, which Munsey termed “awesome” during a tour Tuesday is critical. No less crucial are the services of a caseworker and lots of other people in Munsey’s life: counselors, doctors, and a case manager, from various now coordinated agencies, to help him stick with his medications, make his appointments, be there just to have someone to talk to, and all so he can takes the next steps in his life.
For the mechanically talented Munsey, who came to New Haven from rural Alabama to help take care of an ailing aunt, that means trying for good to end his chronic homelessness, keeping his own place and eventually looking for a job in construction or repair work.
“I didn’t like staying out in them woods. I’m a country boy,” he said, “but ...”
The idea of the campaign that helped Munsey has been to focus on the most salient subset of homeless people—“chronic” is defined as those either homeless for a year continuously or in episodes that add up to 365 days of homelessness over a three-year period—and provide them not only with a place to live first, but a caseworker and supportive services.
Since January 2015, 286 chronically homeless people have been housed or are currently matched with a housing resource and will soon be housed,” reported Jason Martinez, the director of the Greater New Haven Coordinated Access Network (CAN).
There are “CAN"s throughout the state to coordinate dollars aimed at finding people long-term housing, following on Gov. Dannel Malloy’s campaign to end chronic homelessness in Connecticut.
“We make sure that agencies work together,” he said.
In Munsey’s case, on Jan. 19 he was matched with a resource—that is, New Reach’s spiffy condo-style supportive housing in Hamden—and he moved in on Feb. 1.
“In Greater New Haven we are housing people within an average of 71 days,” Martinez added. “It’s easier when you have on-site placement,” an apartment in a homeless agency, such as New Reach’s, real estate portfolio.
Of the 286 people, about 40 are still waiting for housing. They are fully documented as chronically homeless and approved for housing and have the housing “voucher” in their hand, but the search is on for them, with a case worker, to find an apartment across the whole range of different shelter possibilities in the Greater New Haven area.
“When we say we’ve ‘solved chronic homelessness,’ it means we’ve found them; we’ve documented their chronicity, and we’ve matched them with a unit, which means supportive [housing],” said New Reach’s Executive Director Kellyann Day.
Day, whose New Reach manages 100 units of permanent supportive and affordable housing in the New Haven area and other facilities in Norwalk and Bridgeport, was at pains to point out that chronic homelessness does not end miraculously on a day when the last homeless person takes his or her keys and moves in.
“We’ve succeeded because we’re managing it. Each month new people ‘qualify’ [as chronically homeless]. What we’re happy about is it’s not 200 [any more]. We know the numbers are small,” she said, guesstimating perhaps ten a month.
“The challenge is the flow of availability [of units],” which can be in agency-owned properties or federal Section 8 scattered0site housing, or whatever subsidized setting for which a client qualifies.
Munsey’s journey to Unit 205 at Geller Commons also reflects how, through the campaign, the various homeless agencies and services in the area, have teamed up, under the CAN coordinating umbrella of United Way of Greater New Haven, to expedite and smooth bureaucratic processes daunting in complexity, especially for people without regular addresses.
For example, after living outside for three years—and enduring tough conditions including beatings and theft of medications—he credited Columbus House counselors with preparing him for regular supportive housing. That included not only a violation-less stint at the Columbus House shelter off Ella Grasso Boulevard but also being a model guest in the city’s Abraham’s Tent program.
That’s where the shelters screen their patrons and house them at various churches, synagogues, and mosques across the city. Munsey knows the city’s churches well, from that program, he said. He recalled, with affection, a prayer blanket presented to him by the congregants of St. Anne’s church on Dixwell.
As importantly, he kept up his methodone treatment and counseling at the APT Foundation.
There a counselor, who Munsey said treated him like a son, convinced him that after his girlfriend died, instead of getting high, as he wanted to, that he had to change.
An Apartment, A Swiffer, Then The Kids
There was also another critical intervention: the staff at Columbus House helped him clear the criminal record that was holding back his being able to receive any housing benefits.
“I had warrants, so Columbus House worked with me,” Munsey said. They convinced him to turn himself in and serve four months that he’d been sentenced to for larceny and passing forged payroll checks.
Columbus House still provides ongoing counseling for Munsey, even though he resides at New Reach’s housing and also works with Dianna Cabrera, the supportive services caseworker at New Reach’s Geller Commons.
“That’s [that is, the seamless working together of the various agencies] the beauty of it,” explained Martinez.
“Raymour and Flanagan brought the furniture,” Cabrera said. On the morning that Munsey gave a reporter a tour of his apartment, he also pointed out with gratitude the iron, and cleaning products, including a Swiffer, which Munsey particularly liked, and which New Reach had contributed to mark Munsey’s moving in, along with other useful kitchen and household items.
As he showed some visitors all the closets where he is storing his stuff—some is still in a shopping cart in the bedroom—and his new Swiffer—he termed the place not only awesome, but “it blew my mind.”
Of course, it’s not only the apartment, but the ever-present staff. If he get depressed, there’s always someone to talk to, Munsey said.
Cabrera said Munsey lives independently in the apartment, running his own life. He’s not the first resident of the unit. The previous guy did not work out. She said he drank, which is not breaking the rules if he did so in his apartment. But doing so out in the corridors was grounds for his leaving the Geller Commons unit.
Which made room for Munsey.
“You worked hard to be here,” said Cabrera.
Munsey picked up his Swiffer and said he was going to use it to make sure the apartment looked spiffy when his two daughters and their grandmother, he hopes, come up for a visit with him later this year.