JRI Health Youth Housing Initiative hailed as success so far

Martin Desmarais | 7/25/2013, 6 a.m.

Halfway through the three-year, $1.3 million JRI Health Youth Housing Initiative those involved are calling the program a success so far. In addition, they believe that the program can be a model for providing youth housing services into the future.

Backed by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Youth Housing Initiative is a Boston program to offer safe and stable housing for youth ages 18 to 25 who are living with HIV.

Since the program started in January 2012, JRI Health has helped 22 youth find supported housing. Notably, two youths have already made the transition from the program to independent and non-supported living situations and are no longer dependent on the program.

According to John Gatto, executive director of JRI Health, helping those in the program achieve independent and non-supported living is the ultimate goal. “The overall process is people come in and we get them housed and get them stabilized and we are immediately planning for what is next,” said Gatto. “We start planning for locating a permanent option immediately.”

The Youth Housing Initiative serves teens and young adults referred by a number of HIV service programs and medical providers throughout Greater Boston. The housing units used by the program are scattered across the city, including in locations in Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester.

JRI Health is part of the Justice Resource Institute (JRI). Based in Needham, the JRI is dedicated to addressing the challenges of both the human services and educational systems and the persons and families these systems were created to serve. Working in partnership with individuals, families, communities and government, JRI offers behavioral health and trauma services, developmental needs services, HIV and LGBTQ services and residential and educational services.

According to Gatto, the effectiveness of the program in helping youth with HIV goes beyond just housing. “We know that housing is directly related to the likelihood of somebody acquiring HIV,” he said. “And also the likelihood of someone who has HIV remaining healthy.”

In particular, he pointed out that homeless youth with HIV face an even greater difficulty managing their health care and staying healthy, which becomes a societal issue because it increases the risk of spreading the disease.

“If we can keep some of these young people with HIV housed they are much more likely to stay on their HIV meds,” said Gatto. “If they stay on their HIV meds it can directly reduce the possibility of them infecting someone else.”

The other very important part of the program is that it focuses on youth. While there are many programs and a lot of effort and money put into providing housing for adults, Gatto said these programs are not necessarily as effective for youth.

“Young people face even greater barriers to obtaining housing,” he said. “They don’t often have some of the basic skills it takes to go out and look for housing, fill out an application, sign a lease and understand what all of that means.”

He added that the barriers become even greater when race and ethnicity are factored into the equation. Gatto said that young men of color are perhaps the most marginalized.