CHICAGO — By her own account, Keisha Wallace has been every type of homeless: She has bounced around friends’ couches, stayed in shelters and slept on the train overnight. Wallace, who suffers from chronic seizures, is hospitalized five to six times a month, frequenting emergency rooms around Chicago.
But her circumstances changed dramatically recently when she received the keys to her own apartment. Wallace is one of the first people to be housed through the Flexible Housing Pool, or FHP, a collaboration among public and private health care and housing entities around Chicago aimed at homeless “superusers” of emergency service, including hospitals,ERs, jails and shelters.
The program puts participants in supportive subsidized housing in apartments across the county and connects them with nearby social and health services. The idea is to get them the help they need on a noncrisis basis, which tends to be better for the recipients and the agencies that serve them.
Wallace, 44, is the mother of a 16-year-old daughter. Originally from St. Louis, she moved to the city to attend Columbia College, where she majored in music for a year. Since then, she has worked a variety of jobs, including managing a Starbucks, performing massage therapy and giving tours of Chicago on a double-decker bus, while pursuing her passion for music.
In 2013, while giving a tour, her bus was involved in a wreck, she said. Since then, Wallace said, she has had three to five seizures a week. Unable to hold down a job, she eventually became homeless.
“I went from someone who was rarely ever sick to someone who was being hospitalized five to six times a month,” she said, recalling seizures on public transportation and at work, and sometimes waking up in ERs.
Given her frequent ER visits and lack of stable housing, Wallace was flagged by FHP social workers and put on a list of potential candidates for the program. One afternoon she received a call from Emily Marlowe of Renaissance Social Services, who performs community outreach for the FHP asking if Wallace was interested in an apartment.
“It’s one of those things that sounds a little too good to be true,” Wallace said.
But soon after, she began apartment hunting, settling on a one-bedroom in Woodlawn.
The Flexible Housing Pool was created in 2018 with city funding and money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided through the Chicago Housing Authority. Cook County Health pledged $1 million earlier this year. And recently, the program announced a $1.8 million investment from multiple partners over the next three years, including the first private investments from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois and Advocate Aurora Health, said Lisa Morrison Butler, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. In total, more than $5.4 million from the city and housing authority have been pledged, officials said.
The FHP is an example of the housing-first approach to combating homelessness, said Deputy Mayor Sybil Madison, who noted that it is a more cost-efficient and humane alternative to current housing programs.
“Homeless patients we know have a higher risk of admission to the emergency room and frequent utilization of the emergency room, longer extended inpatient stays linked to the fact that they have acute chronic diseases that oftentimes are not well or poorly managed,” said Dr. Alvia Siddiqi, the vice president of population health for Advocate Aurora Health.
Research has shown links between strained socio-economic factors, such as housing instability, and health issues, Siddiqi said. Providing the upfront investment of stable housing to the homeless will give individuals a safe environment, an essential aspect of whole-person care and long-term health, she said.
“The Flexible Housing Pool tells folks that you are important, that you matter, we believe that you can do great things,” said Peter Toepfer, the executive director of the Center for Housing and Health, a nonprofit that provides housing for the homeless. “We believe in your right to quality health care, we believe in your right to a decent home,” said Peter Toepfer, the executive director of the Center for Housing and Health, a nonprofit organization that provides housing for the homeless.
“We know when someone has a safe place to live, they’re less likely to go to the emergency room, less likely to be inpatient in the hospital and less likely to spend time in jail,” Toepfer said.
Unlike traditional housing programs that require participants to provide multiple identification documents and proof of chronic homelessness, the FHP finds individuals from lists of so-called superusers — people who are heavy users of crisis services — Marlowe said. The program takes the individuals’ needs and desires into account when finding them housing. For instance, Wallace was able to choose her own apartment.
“People who are often the sickest, who have the most difficult, complex medical conditions to manage — hepatitis C or HIV or severe mental illness — they’re not able to keep all those documents together,” said Loren Phillips of Renaissance Social Services, where she provides community outreach for the Flexible Housing Pool. “For this project being able to get people into housing first makes a gigantic difference.”
To Wallace, an apartment of her own symbolizes a newfound stability and safety. She has gone back to recording music and plans to release two small projects before the end of the year under her stage name, K. Ladawn.
Her empty apartment echoes, but Wallace doesn’t mind. It will be furnished soon, again thanks to the FHP, but in the meantime she said she has enjoyed flopping down on her air mattress at the end of the day, finally in a space to call her own.
“It represents me being able to show my daughter that we don’t just get problems, we work through them too,” Wallace said, beaming and jingling her keys.