Samantha Abarzua loves to draw. She has a pet turtle, and her room is filled with pink horses. It seems ordinary enough for a nine year old, until you see where Samantha and her parents spent the first few years of her life.
“She calls it the ugly house,” Samantha’s mother, Annmarie Wallace, says of the one-room shelter apartment she inhabited when Samantha was born. “It was like a room, a little cooking area. And in the summers it was so hot. I would literally wet a blanket and throw it over us at night. And there were so many rats.”
In 2005, Wallace was pregnant, in treatment for drug addiction, and suddenly homeless. In the years that followed, she and her husband Carlos bounced between homeless shelters and short-term housing. It was all temporary, they kept falling back on old habits, and it seemed like they were stuck in the system.
“I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to do,” says Wallace. “And then you got people telling you ‘you can’t do that, you’re not going to do that, you’ll never get to that point.’ They put you down a lot.”
Then a New York City shelter worker told the family about a different option: affordable housing with built-in support services called, simply enough, supportive housing. Wallace applied, and instead of a temporary shelter, the family suddenly had a permanent place to call home: a new apartment building called Fox Point in the Bronx.
“The day we moved in, we signed our lease and it was downstairs. They gave us the key, they showed us the apartment and I was just like ‘wow.’ I never lived somewhere so nice,” said Wallace.
At Fox Point, chronically homeless families with a history of substance abuse live alongside low-income families who qualify for government-subsidized housing. The building is managed by the non-profit supportive housing organization, Palladia, Inc.
Clinical Supervisor Emily Wyman oversees the “supportive” part of the equation at Fox Point: on-site counselors for drug addiction, health care and job assistance. “What we might take for granted is something that is foreign to them when they first move in,” Wyman says. “Getting their children up to school, following that routine, cleaning their apartment, cooking.”
For Wallace, who started seeing an educational counselor during her first six months at Fox Point, the supportive services were a new experience. “I didn’t know you could get your GED in college,” said Wallace. “There was a worker here, Gale. She told me about it, she took me on tours. She started the process.”
“The ultimate goal I think for us is to break the cycle of homelessness,” explained Wyman. “That we work so closely with families and the children especially, that we see the children graduate from high school, that we see the children go off to college.”
But there’s a catch: supportive housing is expensive. While residents pay 30% of their income towards rent, many rely on public assistance or social security benefits. The buildings themselves cost millions of dollars to construct or renovate.
Brenda Rosen, the president and CEO of Common Ground, one of the largest supportive housing organizations in the city, says that long-term savings outweigh those costs.
“The typical person you walk by on the street is costing the city and state and federal government roughly $56,000 a year, and that person has no home or security and safety,” says Rosen. “To come into a building like this to access all of the supports…and have an apartment with a key, costs roughly $24,000 a year.”
One of Common Ground’s buildings, the Prince George, was once a derelict welfare hotel. Now it’s providing rent-stabilized housing and a place where the formerly homeless can find services they need and share common spaces with other low-income residents.
“The people that we work with on the streets, [who] are dealing with mental health issues, medical issues and substance abuse issues, are those folks that are using public resources in a very large way. So these crisis service that they use, EMS, emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, jails – these cost a lot of money,” says Rosen.
After five years at Fox Point, Wallace says she is clean and sober, and on her way to completing a bachelors degree in health services. “I went to school so I can depend on me and my kids can depend on me,” says Wallace. “I feel happy I accomplished everything that I accomplished, so when people say I can’t do, I showed them I can do that. And I show my kids to have a better life. To go to school and get an education, because it’s really important.”
Like any low-income resident, once accepted, supportive housing residents can stay as long as they pay their share of the rent. Because most stay put and the demand keeps growing, it’s now up to the city and the state to decide what to invest to make room for more families like Annmarie Wallace’s.
Watch a follow-up interview with New York City Deputy Mayor of Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen here.