WASHINGTON -- For roughly 20 years, Mark Thompson lived alone in the woods, drifting between Maryland and Washington, D.C. He scraped by through odd jobs painting or landscaping, and also stealing. He drank and did drugs, and cycled in and out of jail.
"I hated the fact that I woke up every morning," he said. "Another day of hell."
He recalled once waking under a tree, covered in bird poop. As he rose, his bottle of Seagram's gin tumbled to the ground. "As I bent over to pick it up, I saw my face in the liquor and I said, 'Wow, who is that?' I had hair coming out of my nose, I had a beard and a mustache. I looked a mess."
He broke the cycle after meeting an outreach worker from Pathways to Housing D.C., the Washington offshoot of an organization that originally pioneered an innovative solution to chronic homelessness in New York: giving the homeless homes.
Since January 2013, Thompson, 55, has woken up in a sunny one-bedroom apartment in the District's Brightwood neighborhood. He's got wood floors and a huge TV. He lost the nose hairs and traded the scraggly beard for a trim goatee. Depending on his needs, somebody from a rotating team of Pathways workers, including a nurse and a social worker, stops by Thompson's place every week to check in on him.
"It's like being born again," Thompson said. "I thought I was going to perish. I was in despair."
The New York-based Pathways pioneered this approach, known as "housing first," the 1990s, at a time when temporary shelters were often the only option available to homeless people. Since then, Pathways offshoots have opened offices in Philadelphia, Vermont and Washington, while its strategy has been replicated in dozens of cities. The federal government, under the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has also adopted housing first as a central component of its efforts to battle homelessness nationwide, setting the ambitious goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2016. Researchers have repeatedly found that the approach succeeds in reducing homelessness while saving money on jail and hospital costs. Chronic homelessness in America is down 21 percent since 2010.
The basic idea is simple. Chronically homeless individuals may require treatment for alcohol or substance abuse, or need mental health care. But maintaining a healthy lifestyle is extremely difficult without the stability of a home. So housing first programs hand over the keys to an apartment first, and then focus on treatment.
The only condition for program participants is that they obey the terms of their lease. Pathways and other housing first organizations help the new lessees connect with whatever government benefits they might be eligible for, which in Thompson's case is a monthly Supplemental Security Income check. Following the rules for federal rental assistance programs (which are tapped when possible), participants contribute a percentage of their income to the rent.
The chronically homeless represent just 14 percent of the overall homeless population, and housing first is not a solution for the 7.7 million Americans at risk of homelessness for economic reasons. But chronic cases -- people who've been homeless more than a year and suffer from a disability of some kind -- are the most visible of the homeless, the kind many city dwellers see on the street every day.
Pathways D.C. director Christy Respress said that since the group opened its D.C. office in 2004, Pathways has housed 600 formerly homeless people here, of whom 90 percent have remained in their apartments. Pathways is one of several organizations helping administer the 1,312 currently filled slots in the city's permanent supportive housing program. The number of chronically homeless individuals within city limits has declined from 2,110 in 2010 to 1,609 last year, according to the most recently available data.
Housing first is not only effective in getting homeless people off the streets. It is also designed to save the government money. The District's 400 most vulnerable chronically homeless people soak up an average of $40,000 per person annually in ambulance rides, hospitalizations and run-ins with the law, according to a February analysis commissioned by Miriam’s Kitchen, another homeless services provider in the city. By contrast, rent and social services for someone in a permanent supportive housing program run about $20,000 annually.
Despite the proven effectiveness of housing first, many cities have taken a more punitive approach to addressing homelessness, outlawing things like sleeping in public or panhandling.
Thompson said he never begged, but he was arrested repeatedly in the 1990s for theft, a record that made it harder for him to get regular work. He said he stole when he had no money to buy clothes or food. His status as a homeless person led some employers to exploit him.
"I would go out and do some construction or go out and do some painting, and then when I finished they wouldn't pay me, or they'd give me a couple of dollars [and say] go get a bottle of wine."
Thompson connected with Pathways after noticing an outreach worker talking to a small group of homeless men at the Federal City Shelter building in downtown Washington, where he occasionally stayed. Realizing that the worker was looking for veterans, Thompson introduced himself. He explained that he had served in the Army as a mechanic from 1979 to 1985 and became homeless after his landscaping business failed in the late '80s.
Thompson is one of 50 veterans in a housing first pilot program funded by a 2012 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs and administered by 14 agencies around the country, including Pathways in D.C.
Since moving into his apartment, Thompson has been able to turn his life around. For three months last year he worked doing maintenance on gym equipment for a Defense Department subcontractor until the company lost its contract. He said he has landscaping and painting jobs lined up for the next several days, and is optimistic he'll win a steady gig soon.
Thompson has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which he believes was the result of constant solitude during his homeless years.
"I never really associated with people. I basically was just trying to survive and because of that I hear voices," he said. "The voices used to talk about me, and then now I hear more of them, they're all around me, and they seem to follow me wherever I go."
But in his apartment, instead of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, Thompson has actual medication. And he can talk to a Pathways social worker, or he can play with his cat, or he can study the ratty Bible he's kept with him over the years. Several verses adorn the walls, and Thompson said he plans to add another from the first book of Samuel that talks about how God "raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes."
Thompson said he used to "fuss with God" every morning, but he doesn't anymore. "He took me out of my shit and cleaned me up," he said.
Clarification: This story has been changed to reflect that Pathways in Washington, D.C., is a separate entity from the New York organization.