PHOENIX -- Two weeks ago, Betty Kelleher was sleeping with one eye open in a noisy, putrid downtown parking lot with about 250 other homeless people. Today, she sleeps on a full-size bed in a studio with such good air-conditioning that she gets cold if it's on too long.
Her new place is modest: a bed, a sink, a stove, a small fridge and a closed-off area with a toilet and tub. But it's home. And for Kelleher, who has been homeless on and off for three years, it means hope.
Lime green and mustard yellow walls add a splash of color to an already sunny hallway with floor-to-ceiling windows. The rooms come fully furnished - including pots and pans, soap, shampoo, and a TV.
"It's so much better than the streets. It's like a castle," Kelleher, 58, said, sitting on a newly washed blanket on her bed while pinto beans simmered on the stove.
Kelleher is one of 90 chronically homeless people who will have a home at the newly refurbished downtown Phoenix housing complex by next month. A third of the property's nearly 300 units will house the area's most desperate population, easing some of the strain on an overflow parking lot near the state Capitol where homeless people have congregated for the last three months.
The move-in to the apartment complex is among several efforts in the Phoenix area to quickly find housing for the chronically homeless. Those defined as chronically homeless have a documented disability and have been on the streets for a year or more, or have been homeless on and off at least four times in the past three years.
The apartment complex was on the brink of foreclosure when Maricopa County purchased it with federal stimulus funds in May 2011. Arizona Housing Inc., a non-profit organization, manages the complex to house low-income and formerly homeless residents. Fifty chronically homeless men and women were moved in this month using federal housing vouchers. Another 40 will find a home there in the next two weeks.
The move is indicative of area social-service providers' growing use of the Housing First model, a national standard used to identify and get aid to the most vulnerable homeless men and women.
The goal is to get them into housing as quickly as possible and provide social services to help them get back on their feet - in effect, to wean them off survival mode. When the immediate desperation of finding a safe place to sleep is gone, many homeless people can start to address their physical, behavioral and substance-abuse problems.
Social-service providers at the downtown Phoenix Human Services Campus assess the client's life expectancy on the street based on their mental health, medical needs, substance-abuse history and years of homelessness. They make it a priority to first serve those least likely to survive on the streets much longer.
It took 2 1/2 weeks from the time Kelleher was assessed to move her into her new home.
Kelleher slept for most of the first week in her new place. It had been nearly impossible to sleep soundly on the parking lot, with the constant threat of violence and theft. Here, the halls are quiet. The only thing she hears is passing trains, and she sleeps right through them.
Kelleher spent nights in the parking lot with her boyfriend of two years, Chris Becker. He comes by often to visit her and take naps. Becker is still sleeping in the parking lot, but is being assessed to see if he qualifies for housing at the same complex.
Last December, Phoenix-area providers used the Housing First model for the first time and paid for 35 chronically homeless people to move into two Phoenix housing complexes. So far, the method has had a 95 percent success rate and no one has returned to homelessness, said John Wall, Arizona Housing Inc. supportive-housing director.
"That's the thing that you see when people have a stake in the community. It's been a long time since they've seen that," Wall said.
Staff pick up residents' sheets and blankets twice a month for a laundry service, which also gives them an opportunity to check regularly on residents' living environments.
There are community activities like bingo nights and farmer's markets. Staff operate the site 24/7, and case managers are available 10 hours a day. Community Bridges, a non-profit, provides substance-abuse counseling and behavioral health support on site.
"If it was as easy as just getting people into housing I would've been done with this a long time ago," said Mark Holleran, chief executive officer of Arizona Housing Inc. and Central Arizona Shelter Services.
"In a lot of ways, getting them into housing is the easy part. Keeping them in that housing and providing the support so that they'll be successful on a longer-term basis, that's the challenge. And finding the money and resources to provide the supportive services - that's the challenge to our community as a whole," Holleran said.
The property is the only one with units designated for homeless gay youth, mainly between 18 and 24. One n ten, a non-profit that helps empower gay youths with mentoring and service programs that promote self-acceptance and leadership development, connects homeless youth with housing there. Five units are available for them, and the organization is working to get five more.
The affordable rent and convenient location made the property a good fit for One n ten and its youth, said Linda Elliott, executive director. The organization pays the youths' rent. The complex is close to a light rail stop, allowing youth to take public transportation to school and look for entry-level jobs downtown, Elliott said.
The organization's survey from two years ago found half of the youth it serves were homeless, Elliott said.
"Its been a very good partnership, good collaboration. Our youth who are homeless, quite often it is because they have been kicked out of their homes by their parents because they're gay or transgender," or aged out of the foster care system when they turned 18, Elliott said.
Two youths who were housed at the complex left the program after they found jobs, their own housing and stabilized their lives, she said.
Dennis Smith, 58, was homeless on and off for 2 1/2 years. He bounced around between a halfway house and various shelters, and slept near canals and behind railroad tracks when shelters kicked him out. He has tried to get back on his feet on his own several times to no avail. He moved in to the downtown Phoenix complex last week from a shelter at the Human Services Campus.
Smith is putting his associate's degree in interior design to good use decorating his apartment unit. He used thumbtacks to hang blue and white sheets above the window as curtains, and constantly rearranges his belongings to see what layout he likes best. An avid reader, he has more than three dozen books lining the walls and several magazines on his table.
"It's my first home in 2 1/2 years," Smith said. "I'm happy. It's not much, but it's mine."
Smith has prostate cancer and is diagnosed with psychological disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. After moving in, he set goals for himself to maintain stable housing, improve his health, find a part-time job, get a peer-support license and volunteer.
But before he helps others, he says he has to focus on himself.
"It's time I'm gonna do me," Smith said.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee, The Arizona Republic