What does it take to change?
I’ve thought a lot about change, why it matters, and how it happens.
Take running. I was never a runner. I never played team sports in school and didn’t consider myself particularly athletic. For years I believed I couldn’t run; well-meaning doctors told me my particular set of chronic conditions would be aggravated by the repetitive movement.
I started running in my early twenties after I lost my dad to suicide. My dad was a runner, and I thought maybe in the experience, I could find a way to connect with him. At first, it did not work. For a long time, really, I was breathless, pushing too hard, too fast. I had to slow down. It felt infuriating to see a future state but have to accept how long it would take to get there. But eventually, painstakingly, step by aching step, and only in hindsight, I realized running had become a permanent part of who I am.
So, what does it take to change a system?
In 2010, Pathways Vermont partnered with the Vermont Department of Corrections to pilot a Housing First program for people exiting incarceration in our state. It made sense. People who have been incarcerated are far more likely to experience homelessness than people who have not been, cited in In Focus. Incarceration and Homelessness: A Revolving Door of Risk.
In turn, people experiencing chronic homelessness are often caught in what we call the “institutional circuit,” cycling between our most expensive social systems, including psychiatric institutionalization, emergency care, and incarceration.
In Vermont, it costs $260 a day for a bed in prison. Our Housing First program – for both services and housing subsidy – runs around $53 a day. When we piloted this program, we had a growing percentage of people in our communities being held in prison past their release date for lack of housing: people who had served their time but lacked the resources to return to their communities. This partnership seemed like the right thing to do.
We asked: what would it look like to in-reach? To connect with people while incarcerated, rather than waiting for outreach to happen once they likely entered homelessness. Could we adapt Housing First to meet the needs of folks involved with Corrections?
We started with a small pilot program: 10 people, one community. We found independent apartments for folks in our communities, and we leased them ourselves, subletting to our program participants. This gave landlords some added confidence, and it allowed our tenants to navigate returning to the community, knowing their housing would remain secure should they temporarily need to be away. We built a community-based support team using a modified Assertive Community Treatment model. We saw people frequently and worked to meet them where they were holistically and comprehensively.
Like anything, it was beautiful and messy, and we learned a lot. But overall, people came out of incarceration, and they stayed out – and they stayed housed.
One of the most confounding and interesting parts of the project was our funder and partner: the Department of Corrections. At the outset, it seemed like an unlikely match. Pathways and Housing First are so deeply entrenched in the values of individual choice and autonomy we often ran the risk of being viewed as too permissive or ‘giving something, asking nothing.’ How was DOC viewed? Well, pretty much the opposite.
But for the program to work, it required we work closely together – probation and parole officers, caseworkers in facilities – they became our partners. We met frequently: joining our participants at their meetings with their probation officers, holding interagency team meetings, and providing cross-training about how each entity operates and our respective best practices.
And slowly, step by aching step, things began to change.
For our part, we realized quickly that to support people to live in community well, we had to think broadly about what that asks of us. There are social contracts and rules to living in community for ALL of us. For folks working with DOC and under conditions of release, there are undoubtedly more rules, though framing it in that way for folks we served made it more tangible.
As we worked to honor personal autonomy, restore dignity, and reduce shame, we encouraged DOC to learn more about harm reduction and to rethink their understanding of risk and safety. Through conversations and shared experiences – we engaged endlessly about how to best support each other. Together, we grew our muscles for tolerating discomfort and envisioned differently what it looks like to stick with people in a truly restorative way.
In 2021 DOC engaged in justice reinvestment work to restructure elements of community supervision and housing support with the following vision: All Vermonters under supervision have the housing resources and relationships they need to thrive and keep themselves and communities safe. Throughout our partnership with DOC, we have seen their values shift in real-time. With their financial support, we expanded our program to 9 counties across our state and now serve over 100 individuals in independent apartments across the state at any given time. Now, the main resource for people exiting incarceration in our state is Housing First.
It is Pathways’ belief that a strong investment in people – both interpersonally and systemically – reduces their reliance on expensive social systems and supports a fuller community for all. Our ultimate hope is for massive change: communities without carceral institutions. A recent Vermont Digger article highlights some of the possibilities, many driven by the Department of Corrections itself. For now, through our ever-evolving relationship with the DOC, we are continuing to learn together and incrementally change the system from within. Through the power of human connection and mutual relationships between Pathways, the DOC, and the individuals we support, we are able to build genuine, dynamic relationships that are transformative for all of us. One step at a time.