Flagstaff Program Keeps Homeless Housed

After living in her car for two months, Leen Yazzie says getting the key to her new apartment felt like a weight had been lifted.
February 21, 2018

Leen Yazzie has survived living in her car in Phoenix during the hottest days of the summer.

“I constantly turned on the AC and it was using up my gas,” Yazzie said. “I had the sunshade in front and towels hanging up so nobody would see me. And I’d make sure I was close to where I can run into a restroom or a Circle K, somewhere where I could wash up.”

When her father became sick, she moved to Flagstaff to be near him. He didn’t have room for her in his apartment, so she slept in her car again until she found a job.

A series of events sent her into a downward spiral. She got hit by a car riding her bike to work, and became addicted to alcohol and painkillers. She lost her job and her apartment. A turning point came one night after she overdosed.

One of her first steps toward turning her life around was cleaning up her credit and getting her furniture back. So she paid a visit to the landlord who evicted her.

“It just was heartbreaking,” Yazzie said. “They said all my stuff was trash. They threw everything in the trash, my pots and pans, my table. I had a cd collection too and my stereo.”

Her stuff was gone. But she remained determined to find a new job and home.

She was overqualified for the few jobs available, and several weeks passed before she finally landed a payroll specialist position at a new business.

Flagstaff’s rapid re-housing program set her up with a security deposit at a new place and a case manager who helps keep her housed.

“I feel much better, I feel there’s hope. There are times where I felt like I wanted to give up, times where I cried, times where I prayed. I just kept pushing myself.”
— Leen Yazzie

So when her landlord handed her a key to her new home, it symbolized something big.

“It felt like a whole weight just came off of me,” Yazzie said. “I felt very happy that night when I slept in a bed. I completely spread out. ‘I’m sleeping in a bed!’”

Yazzie, who is Navajo, is one of 700 people in Flagstaff who experience homelessness every day. Forty percent are Native American.

Flagstaff is in an affordable housing jam. There are few places to build in a town surrounded by national forest. But the city’s also bordered by the Navajo Nation, which has a housing shortage of its own, and a large population of homeless.

Ross Altenbaugh is the executive director of Flagstaff Shelter Services and one of the key people who launched this new housing program a year and a half ago.

Ross Altenbaugh
(Laurel Morales)
Ross Altenbaugh is the executive director of Flagstaff Shelter Services and a big believer in the housing first philosophy. She says, a person is more motivated when they have something they stand to lose.

“There are a lot of people with substance issues, especially in a community that’s a border town to another community that doesn’t allow alcohol,” Altenbaugh said.

In addition to bordering the reservation, Flagstaff’s a college town, where the cost of living is so high it’s hard to find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,400 a month.

“We have a difficult time housing social workers and teachers and police officers,” Altenbaugh said. “There is an enormous body of people underneath those folks that need housing too that have nothing close to the resources that those folks have.”

Some transitional housing shelters spend as much as $25,000 per person per year. The rapid re-housing program costs much less.

“Not only is someone like Leen in her permanent house, but it’s costing us much less,” Altenbaugh said. “On average we’re looking at $3,000-4,000 per person. So it’s a much more cost efficient intervention and it has a much higher success rate.”

Research backs this idea that a person is more motivated when they have something they stand to lose -  85 percent have stayed permanently housed after one year. And that beats the national average of 67 percent.

Altenbaugh has kept a white board in her office since starting the rapid re-housing program. Every time a case manager helps someone sign a lease, they put that person’s name on the board.

“It’s a little bit like ringing a bell when you sell a car,” Altenbaugh said. “I get mad at my staff if they don’t come in and tell me. I’m like, ‘wait a minute why isn’t that name up here?’ It’s a motivator, like you walk in and you see that list it’s like, ‘no, we need to make sure this person stays housed.’”

Leen Yazzie’s name has been added to the board.

“I feel much better,” Yazzie said. “I feel there’s hope. There are times where I felt like I wanted to give up, times where I cried, times where I prayed. I just kept pushing myself.”

Now she has to maintain that. And she said, a new home is just the motivation she needs.