This article, originally published at 10:48 a.m. July 27, 2023, was updated at 1:39 p.m. July 27, 2023, to correct information about the number of people Interfaith Works served.
Montgomery County-based nonprofit Interfaith Works opened a home in Rockville for eight medically vulnerable senior men facing homelessness in June. The home offers intensive at-home case management and 24/7 behavioral and clinical support, a first for the county.
The home, called Lon’s House, provides not only a warm bed, donated hot meals and roof to cover their head, but community and access to medical care at no cost to the individual. It is the newest permanent supportive housing option in the county exclusively dedicated to serving vulnerable homeless men, who may have disabilities or behavioral health diagnoses.
According to Christine Hong, chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, there has been an increasing trend in vulnerable seniors entering the system with more severe needs.
“This isn’t new, but there are more [people], and our system isn’t necessarily designed to meet the needs–especially our shelter system–of very, very vulnerable older adults who would need a higher level of care,” said Hong, who served as the director of homeless services at Interfaith Works until May 2023.
This year the county saw a 53.8% increase in its homeless population, up from 313 people from 2022, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments 2023 Point-in-Time (PIT) count. The survey, conducted on Jan. 25, counted 894 adults and children residing in shelters, transitional housing or unsheltered across the county.
The PIT count is an annual survey of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January, a time when temperatures are lowest, Hong said. Through gathering this data, communities can better understand the state of homelessness in their area and track the progress of initiatives to end homelessness.
As of July 5, there are 703 people in the county’s coordinated entry system waiting to be referred to housing, according to Hong.
A look inside Lon’s House
On June 15, Interfaith Works opened Lon’s House, which is located on Fleet Street in Rockville just blocks away from Rockville Town Square. Also nearby are residential neighborhoods, Victory Court Senior Apartments, Richard Montgomery High School and various office buildings. Next to the home, the county has contracted Habitat for Humanity to build an affordable single-family home, and is currently in the planning phase of development.
Gina Esipila, director of the shared supportive housing program at Interfaith Works, said Lon’s House – named after Interfaith Works’ founder Rev. Lincoln “Lon” Dring – will be home to some of the county’s most vulnerable people.
At the newly renovated home, there are four bedrooms including an ADA accessible bedroom and bathroom. In addition, the home features a kitchen stocked with appliances, a washer and dryer, a living room with books and games, a front porch and back patio, a grassy backyard and an office and meeting space for clients and case workers.
To furnish the home, Interfaith Works received a gift card from Bob’s Discount Furniture. The Furniture & Rug Depot of North Bethesda also sold Interfaith Works all the bed frames at a discounted rate, Esipila said.
Located in the Rockville Heights Historic District, the home was built in 1904 and is described as a “high-style Georgian” home where a local attorney, Clifford Robertson, and his family lived for 65 years, according to the City of Rockville Historic District Commission.
According to Liz Krueger, the director of homeless services at Interfaith Works, after the previous owner died, the county acquired the home and now contracts Interfaith Works to provide services there.
Because there are only eight spaces available in the home, clients are initially referred through the coordinated entry program run by the county’s Services to End and Prevent Homelessness. Those at the top of the list are the most vulnerable. Once someone receives a referral they can tour the home, learn about the program and determine if they want to live at the site, Esipila said.
Clients who choose to stay at Lon’s House or any of Interfaith Works’ permanent supportive housing programs, can stay as long as they want or need.
“We do not have a time limit or have a year limit; it’s not transitional housing. As long as they can take care of themselves, they stay with us,” Esipila said, adding that some residents have even moved out of the permanent housing program and now live in their own apartments.
According Krueger, 99% of individuals in the program stay housed for two years or more.
On-site are program support staff and volunteers who are responsible for supervising day-to-day activities, monitoring medication and ensuring compliance with program guidelines, such as participating in case management. Residents also have access to an on-call doctor and psychiatrist.
Esipila said it is typical for new clients to need time to warm up to the program and staff try to meet the clients where they are to build up enough trust to have them participate in case management.
Aside from providing the basics of care, Esipila also wants to support residents’ interests and passions.
“I want to provide a program that takes you a little bit further than just the basics,” she said. “What do you want to do? What did you love doing? Did you love gardening? We can hook you up with a garden somewhere. Did you love music? You can do music classes. Did you love volunteering? We can work to the point where you’re stable enough to do some volunteer work.”
The costs of permanent supportive housing
To operate a program like Lon’s House, Interfaith Works is supported primarily by government contracts from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Continuum of Care (CoC) program.
Last year, the nonprofit was awarded $435,000 in CoC funding from the county but ended up with $353,000 to operate Lon’s House said Katie Guzzey, deputy director of supportive housing at Interfaith Works. According to Hong, the $100,000 that Interfaith Works lost out on ended up being allocated by the county into another “bonus project” that would support new providers of housing and homeless services.
For organizations like Interfaith Works that are dependent on CoC funding from HUD, each year is competition to receive a renewal in funding, Hong explained. Last year the county received approximately $9,861,899 of funding from HUD, which, according to Hong, was 95% of the annual renewal demand amount needed to fund existing projects.
This year HUD will provide up to 93% of the renewal demand for the 23 permanent supportive housing programs in the county, Hong said.
The home that Lon’s House operates from was valued at $334,400 as of January 2021, according to state property records. The Montgomery County Department of General Services (DGS) has assisted in renovating the home, which cost about $135,000 and were paid for by the county, according to Greg Boykin, the division chief of facilities management at DGS.
An aging homeless population
According to Hong, programs such as Lon’s House help to fill the gap in housing support for unaccompanied homeless men in the community. Men make up 72% of all unaccompanied individuals experiencing homeless in the county. Of all homeless individuals, seniors 55 and older represent the largest group at 35%, according to the 2023 PIT count.
“Right now, you know, we’re still dealing with a lot of chronically homeless [people] who have endured tremendous trauma throughout the years,” Krueger said. “And so, there’s mental and medical outcomes that transpire as a result and they need a lot of support in their housing. Homes like these provide that. They’re a great model.
“The 24-hour staff support, the case management that’s on site, the ability to connect people to their medical and mental health needs, to get basic life skills training and relationship building. Like the relationships and connecting people who have been isolated for so long.”
Interfaith Works also operates two other homes within its permanent supportive housing program, Becky’s House and Priscilla’s House, which opened in 2004 and 2009, respectively. These programs serve senior women with disabilities and/or behavioral health diagnoses.
After the nonprofit opened the two homes, they soon realized the county’s dire need for more permanent supportive housing projects to be built for the aging homeless population.
“We early on came to the conclusion that we need 25 more of these homes for men and women, because we are very ‘housing first’ in Montgomery County,” Krueger said.
“Housing first” is a homeless assistance approach that eliminates the conditions that people experiencing homelessness need to meet to receive housing, such as managing mental health conditions, required sobriety or employment, Krueger explained. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the approach “views housing as the foundation for life improvement.”
“It removes all the barriers and seeks out the most vulnerable. So, the [people] most likely to die with the highest morbidity rates, the most likely to die on the street or in shelter. [The model] says: Let’s get them into housing; let’s get them into housing first,” Krueger said. “… What we see is that once they’re in housing with the appropriate supportive services, they can address the sobriety, the mental health, the relationship building, the life skills.”
As of mid-July, three men have chosen to move into Lon’s House, Esipila told MoCo360 in an email. Two of the men had been sleeping out on the streets, and according to Esipila, one was not sure he would be able to sleep because he had not slept in a bed in years. “He is adjusting quite well,” she said.
Due to privacy reasons, Interfaith Works declined MoCo360’s request to speak with current residents of the permanent supportive housing program.
Krueger, Esipila and Hong all believe that the county needs more of these homes to address the growing number of vulnerable seniors experiencing homelessness and support the county working alongside homeless organizations to transform vacant homes into housing for the most vulnerable in the community.
Interfaith Works has several other programs aside from their permanent supportive housing programs for vulnerable seniors, such as a rapid rehousing program; community supportive housing; residences at Progress Place in Downtown Silver Spring; an emergency shelter program; an essential needs program that provides clothing, resources and food; and a vocational services program that supports client employment. During the 2022 fiscal year, Interfaith Works served 863 people.
Esipila began as a volunteer working at Becky’s House. There she discovered her passion for helping others through case management and later became the program director. Throughout her time at Interfaith Works, gaining the trust of clients and residents has been the most rewarding part of her work, she said.
“We even had one of our clients who died while at our program. And it’s such an honor because we were able to provide that for her for the last two years of her life,” Esipila said. “She wasn’t in the shelter. She wasn’t struggling with family. She wasn’t in the street. We were her family.”