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JRI Health Youth Housing Initiative hailed as success so far

Martin Desmarais

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.

The Youth Housing Initiative allows for the program to house 20 youth with HIV and as these youth move on to an independent housing situation, more youth can move into the program.

“While there are many more people in the queue there is a lot of work to be done just to get them ready to take a look at what are the housing options,” Gatto said.

And when the youth move on, the program will continue to work with them. “As they move into the next stage of their life we can continue to provide them with the wrap around services,” he added.

At the end of the day, Gatto points out that just finding someone housing is not enough. “People still really need a lot of help to stay housed,” he said. “The rental dollars are very important to get people housing, but the support services are equally important in order to keep people housed.”

JRI also offers supported housing programs to at-risk youth who are not living with HIV. These programs also enable youth to maintain a stable living and become self-sufficient.

“I am always thinking of how we can leverage our resources to do what needs to be done,” Gatto said. “We are able to directly house certain folks, but we are also really trying to get ahead of the curve with young people.”

While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is for three years, Gatto is optimistic that more funding can be received to continue to the program and, if not, JRI will keep the services going in some way.

“The fact is we always do this work,” he said. “We have been trying to help young people with and without HIV for years. … If the money goes away there will be fewer resources, but we will continue to help young people connect with housing.

“Our intent is to keep building on the success we have had,” he added.

Jorgette Theophilis, a program manager at JRI Health who works directly with those in the Youth Housing Initiative, has seen firsthand how much impact the program can have as is grateful for the grant that has allowed for it.

“I think that this funding is absolutely vital,” Theophilis said. “We can all remember being 18 years old. It is not easy to rent your own apartment and live on your own and having somebody help you go through that process is very helpful. … Hopefully the youth will take that forward with them.”

She said another great benefit of the program for the youth involved is that the security of housing and staying on top of medical needs allows them to focus on other aspects of life, such as education and career aspirations. “We can help them fulfill their goals,” she added. “But it is really having a place called home that is so important in this process.”

Theophilis called working with the youth in the program a “wonderful” experience. “We feel very lucky to have the opportunity to work with them and hear about their operations and be on a journey with them,” she said.

Sue Buoncuore, director of the JRI Health housing program, has been equally impressed with the youth in the program. “They are a great bunch of kids,” she said. “They are very positive.

“Hopefully at the end of the day we can have an impact on their lives,” she added.

Beyond just those in the program now, Buoncuore believes the Youth Housing Initiative is very important because it is doing something that has not been done before in such a way and the example it sets can be used as a guideline for future efforts, in particular its focus on youth.

“The type of program really gave us an opportunity to really look at another kind of intervention,” she said. “Maybe if adult clients got this it would have made a difference.

“With this program we are reaching a new generation … and maybe this will make a more positive impact as opposed to waiting to adulthood,” she added.