In January, I had the extraordinary honor of attending the wedding of former clients, Freddie Johnson and Lorraine Wollard, in the chapel at DC Superior Court. When I first met Freddie and Lorraine about five years ago they were living on 14th street… literally. They were bedding down each night in front of what’s now an upscale furniture store. The couple had their shopping cart and their blankets and were doing their very best to stay warm. Life on the street was full of perils, but it was the only way they could stay together. No DC shelters take childless couples. I bought them a “foot long” from Yums on 14th and that was the beginning of a long friendship.
It was also the beginning of Freddie and Lorraine’s move from living outside to living inside. Former Mayor Adrian Fenty and the DC Department of Human Services had just begun a program for chronically homeless individuals called “Housing First.” This housing model, which began in New York City, recognizes that stable housing is the primary need for everyone experiencing homelessness, and that other issues that affect a household can be more successfully addressed once housing is secured. Housing First means that everyone – whether living outside or in shelter, whether clean or actively using, whether healthy or unstable – is ready for housing. This housing is then accompanied by wrap-around case management services to assist participants in overcoming their barriers to self-sufficiency.
When I asked Freddie and Lorraine if they were interested in applying, they said yes.
Since its inception, DC’s Housing First Program, called the “Permanent Supportive Housing Program,” has successfully ended homelessness for approximately 863 chronically homeless individuals and 250 chronically homeless families in DC and has an overall housing retention rate of 92%. Although Housing First has been nationally recognized as a model program with long-term savings, DC’s program has unfortunately shrunk in the past few years and is meeting only a fraction of the need.
For Freddie and Lorraine, Housing First has meant stability, health, and now marriage. Living inside a stable home, they could begin to address the issues that led them to living outside. On the streets, Freddie and Lorraine struggled with severe physical and mental health challenges as well as substance abuse disorders. Freddie had a seizure disorder that was triggered by alcohol consumption and that would land him in the ER on a monthly basis. Life on the streets made it hard for Lorraine to stay on her medications and receive regular health care, and when her mental health conditions worsened she would have altercations with the police and end up in jail quite regularly.
It’s now been 4 years since Freddie and Lorraine have been off the street, and things couldn’t look brighter. They take their medications regularly, receive regular health care, don’t abuse alcohol or drugs, and get monthly visits from a case manager. Freddie hasn’t been hospitalized for a seizure in over a year, and Lorraine likewise hasn’t had an altercation with the police in more than a year. They’ve even reconnected with long lost family members and found a religious community.
It was this stability that led Lorraine to begin thinking about fulfilling a dream she’d had since she was a little girl — getting married. Lorraine echoed Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” when she said to me back at her apartment after the wedding: “Not too long ago I was sick, living on the street, and abusing drugs. Now I’m a married woman!”
-Written by Marta Beresin