WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has come under fire for his handling of the homeless in recent years; from placing families in unsafe shelter conditions at recreational centers during the cold to shuttling people to Maryland hotels. What was designed to be a temporary situation so folks can get back on their feet has turned into a long-term living plan for hundreds who spend years in the shelters. But there is good news: some formerly homeless are now opening the doors to their own apartments through Housing First.
John McDermott has a home now but he lived on the street. He squandered away his money because of alcoholism and soon this once former White House banquet chef fell far into the depths of homelessness.
"So I made up my mind when I hit the street that year in 2007 that I wasn't going to be homeless on the street no more than a year," he explained. It was a decision that saved his life. In 2012, 45 people died on the streets. Advocates recently staged a mock vigil complete with casket to remember the 26 lives lost last year.
"I'd say five times since 2008, I could have been in that coffin," he said.
But the people at Miriam's kitchen – a food and services provider for the homeless - helped rescue McDermott by getting him into the Housing First Program locally funded with $21.4 million. Five years later he's still in his humble Northeast apartment.
The 63-year-old still has health challenges. He's diabetic, epileptic, has cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis C and hep 2. His breathing machines and cocktail of medications can only be safely stored and administered in his apartment. McDermott has a home health aide and the city pays his rent because of his condition.
Since 2004, Housing First has placed 600 people in homes even offering wrap around services for the sick, mentally ill, or addicted. McDermott is now an advocate with the People For Fairness Coalition, a group of formerly and currently homeless individuals working to get people off the streets. The only way he made it out, he says, is faith: faith in the system - a struggle for many homeless people.
"They hear them say something and they don't see nothing so they have a mistrust in the community that's trying to help them," he explained.
"I don't press anyone to do anything for me. My wife and I do it ourselves," said Bryan Hawkins a homeless man who shares a tent with his wife, Davinia, in Northwest.
Even though the couple say they've been waiting for a home for decades, they won't accept help from many, including family members. Davinia's own daughter is about to be D.C. police officer and begged her mom to get off the streets. The couple has managed to normalize a very abnormal situation.
"You don't have to be on the street you have to fight for what you believe in," said McDermott, "the streets are for those who want it."
According to Miriam's Kitchen, the Housing First program has a 92% retention rate. Advocates say more financial support is needed though to reach more homeless. Mayor Gray says funding for case management has increased from $9 mlllion to $21 million.
Stay tuned to WUSA9 and WUSA9.com for Delia Gonçalves final installment of her three-PREVIpart series on Homelessness: The cost, the problem and the solution.