Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cap Times: "Keys to recovery: Innovative program for homeless is succeeding"

Cap Times
"Keys to recovery: Innovative program for homeless is succeeding"
August 11, 2011

Dean Loumos is moving stuff out of Preacher John’s house. He’s taking a blue chair, a wobbly lamp, a couple of mattresses, and some pots and pans to a new tenant, a young guy fresh off the streets who has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Preacher John used to be homeless, too, so it gives Loumos some comfort to know that someone he came to consider the heart and soul of his nonprofit housing group, Housing Initiatives, died with a roof over his head.

Loumos takes the stuff to a four-unit brick apartment building across the street from Lapham Elementary School on the near east side. Housing Initiatives bought the place three years ago. Preacher John helped fix it up, painting the hallways a bright white, refinishing the floors, and tinkering with the electrical system. He could fix anything, except maybe himself.

Loumos buzzes the new tenant’s apartment. A sleepy-looking young guy with rumpled clothes and hair opens the door, blinking in the daylight. Inside, the blinds are closed.

“You’re getting my maintenance man’s stuff,” Loumos tells him. Loumos doesn’t beat around the bush. “He passed away and I thought this was an appropriate use of his things.”

“Awesome,” the new tenant says. Like other tenants discussed in this story, he is not being identified by his real name; several of them worried that the stigma of mental illness could make it difficult for them to find jobs.
He has a tattoo of a dragon on his right arm. He says it represents wisdom, which you get after living on the streets. His downstairs neighbor Paul, a friendly man with a graying ponytail, helps him fold up an air mattress. “Just roll on it,” Paul says. “I’ve had three of these things.” Paul was homeless for 10 years after falling into a deep depression when his wife died.

The air mattress was in the living room right next to the door, but the bed from Preacher John will go into the bedroom. People with mental illnesses, especially if they have been homeless for a while, often sleep next to the door so they can make a quick getaway, Loumos says. It’s one of the many bad habits his organization tries to help them get over.

“I get it,” he tells his new tenant. “Instead of livin’, it’s like you’re hidin.’”

That should change now that he has an apartment of his own. “Just relax. Sooner or later, it will get to you here,” Loumos says, thumping his chest above his heart. “I’m home.”

But his new tenant is worried about a more practical matter. “My toilet ain’t flushin’ right,” he says.
Loumos goes to take a look.
•    •    •    •
Loumos is no ordinary landlord.

For more than 15 years this former Chicago street organizer has been charging ahead in Madison with his version of a social experiment that has become the newest trend in affordable housing. The basic idea is that we can’t expect chronically homeless people to patch up their lives until we give them a safe home. Maybe that seems obvious, but the old model was to require people with mental illnesses or substance abuse problems to prove they were recovered or clean before they got such help. (If they were lucky, they might get a cot in a shelter while they were trying to get back on their feet.) Other Madison organizations including United Way and Porchlight are doing remarkable work with this new approach, too.

But Housing Initiatives is unusual in eschewing shelters to focus solely on acquiring and managing a trove of permanent housing for the hardcore homeless — people with serious mental illnesses who have sometimes spent years living in their cars or on the streets or in institutions and jails. Many have been blacklisted by regular landlords. Remarkably, Housing Initiatives has managed to keep more than 90 percent of this notoriously challenging population in their new homes. This summer, the federal government presented the group with a prestigious Door Knocker Award, the equivalent of an Oscar in the world of affordable housing. Mayor Paul Soglin and an official from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from Chicago held a news conference downtown to celebrate. “But nobody came,” Loumos says.

That’s OK. He likes letting better-known and bigger groups take the spotlight. “I don’t need the fancy suits and dinners and political stuff,” he says. He keeps his hair trimmed shorter than it used to be, around shoulder length, but otherwise, he says, . “I just do my own thing.”

His own thing has been to nab a coveted spigot of federal funding — the Housing and Urban Development Shelter Plus Care rental assistance program aimed at people with mental illnesses — as well as money from a bunch of other local and federal programs. Getting the subsidies — some of which help pay for rents and some of which go toward program expenses — requires working with more than a dozen different community service organizations that help his tenants pull their lives together by providing them with everything from job hunting help to intensive case management. And that’s not to mention the fact that Housing Initiatives has an inventory of 130 apartment units scattered across the city, 80 of which the program owns outright.
A big part of Loumos’ job is coordinating all these pieces. He and his staff of eight are in constant communication every day with tenants and case managers about everything from clogged toilets to psychotic breakdowns.

It’s a natural extension of the street organizing he did back in the 1970s in Chicago, when he worked alongside the Black Panthers and the Young Lords to give the city’s underclass a voice. His poor father back in Racine, he says; the FBI even dropped by to ask what his son was up to. The injustice that Loumos, now 61, is fighting here in Madison began in the 1980s, he says, when society decided to save money by dumping people out of mental institutions and caring for them in the community instead.

There was just one problem.

“They didn’t do the community part,” he says.
•    •    •    •
Even in Madison, which has a national reputation for having some of the most innovative community support programs around, hundreds of people are still falling through the cracks. The latest figures show a promising drop in the numbers of homeless in Dane County: 4,741 in 2010 compared to 6,523 the year before and 7,530 in 2008, but various surveys continue to find that a quarter to half suffer from mental illnesses.
In 2006, a consortium of public and private organizations vowed to do something about the problem in a report ambitiously titled: “Ten Year Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in Dane County.”

But halfway there, despite a surge in city and county funding, some things have gotten worse, not better. The number of residential treatment beds for people with alcohol and drug problems has dropped to 70 from 84 in 2006. The number of community support program slots, which provide ongoing support to clients in their homes, has also slipped to 559 from 562, a fraction of the help needed. Outpatient treatment slots have increased, but not enough; wait lists are years long. The Dane County Mental Health Center, the main place short of the emergency room where people without private health insurance can get psychiatric help, has given up keeping a wait list because the backlog is so large.

One bright spot, though, is housing: the number of supportive living units for people with persistent mental illness in Dane County jumped to 248 from 174 in 2006, a reflection of growing enthusiasm nationally. (That might be not compassion as much as frugality. Studies are showing that it is actually cheaper to put somebody in a permanent apartment along with case management services than it is pay for them to bounce around between shelters, prisons, and emergency rooms.)

Mayor Soglin is one fan. “They’re doing good work,” he says about Housing Initiatives. “They’ve focused on a critical element in regards to our housing supply and that is permanent housing for individuals who need to be in a supportive environment.”

Most cities and states, including Madison, never delivered on their promise to provide residential support and housing to the patients left homeless by the deinstitutionalization movement 30 years ago, Soglin says. Housing Initiatives helps to fill that void. “They stand out because of their commitment to the mission and also because of the quality of their work,” the mayor says.

One Housing Initiatives tenant, a veteran who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, agrees. Having a home of his own, he says, has made him much more “mellow.” Scott, originally from Whitefish Bay (“Whitefolks Bay,” he calls it) spent several years bouncing around on the streets before getting help from the Veterans Administration. He likes to sit outside on his apartment patio near Hilldale where he can see the birds and the june bugs (B-52s, he calls them) and even a favorite “little bunny rabbit.” Now that he feels stable again, he is looking for a job.
•    •    •    •
Loumos loves his work. “It suits me,” he says. “I like the odd. It’s fascinating. It’s challenging as hell.” He’s always asking himself and his staff one thing: “How can we help this guy make it in the community?”
He tells staff that there is no manual for what they do. They have to be able to go into an apartment and notice the water dripping from the sink, the cardboard pizza box on top of the stove, the broken window.

But there are rules.

Most important, “tolerate some ambiguity,” he tells his people.

“It’s a nice way of saying be patient with people who are really messed up,” he explains. “They won’t tell you anything, or what they tell you won’t make sense.”

Also important, he says. “Make it personal.” And “enter into their reality.”

Mike Basford, the assistant executive director, gets a lot of bizarre calls. But he takes them seriously. One tenant with an anxiety disorder, for example, called up because she feared that the lease did not allow her to wear a favorite pair of sandals with beads on them. Another time, she called to ask if she would get kicked out of the apartment for changing the kind of shampoo she was using.

It can be a challenge to figure out what is a legitimate concern and what is the result of paranoia that can accompany some mental disorders. One woman called to say that someone was sneaking into her apartment and turning the eggs in her refrigerator point-ends down in their cartons.

Some tenants are hoarders. One guy liked to fill his bed and his bathtub with cornflakes.

Why? “We don’t ask the why,” Loumos says. “We’re not street therapists.” They just told him to clean his tub before he got in trouble with health inspectors.

Most of the people he meets are really sick, he says. Other times, it is hard to tell.
•    •    •    •
Take Preacher John.

“I never met anybody like him from the lowest of lows to the heads of state,” Loumos says.

When Loumos met him 12 years ago he was living out of his van. Friends say he had decided to ditch his affluent life, his job in the oil industry, and his Colorado family after a religious vision. He changed his name, Doug Pracko, to Preacher John and gave away most of his stuff, including a Mercedes, they say.

Loumos told him he was nuts. “I said this is not normal, this is crazy, you’re suffering some sort of Christ complex, some sort of God complex. You’ve got to be depressed or delusional. He wouldn’t agree to any psychological counseling.”

Loumos gave Preacher John an apartment, then a job as a handyman. He got a health care plan and even a retirement plan. Eventually he even bought a little house where he kept his collections of everything from tools to sewing machine bobbins to guitars and a fiddle. Wherever he went, tenants loved him. He was a big guy with a big beard and a big laugh, and he would fix anything for anybody anytime. They called him Santa Claus and Moses.

Doug “Preacher John” Pracko died from cancer on July 12. At his request, his ashes will be taken to Independence Pass in Colorado by longtime friend Danny Cain, an archeologist he met on the highway years ago while both men were hitchhiking. “He was unafraid to live his life according to his ideals,” Cain said. “Crazy people, junkies, whores, the downtrodden, the refuse of society ... he was terribly sympathetic toward these folks.” Nearly 100 people, some of them fellow vagabonds from as far away as Cleveland and Louisiana, attended his memorial service at a local park on Aug. 7.

Now that Preacher John is gone, property and client services manager Tony Castaneda, like everyone else, has to fill in. Castaneda is a well-known jazz musician in town who knows how to improvise, which comes in handy.

One recent afternoon, he was checking on several tenants in a condominium complex near East Towne Mall. (Castaneda asked that we not use the name of the complex because some residents have been complaining about the number of people with disabilities who live there.)

A woman said her bathtub was broken. “The damn thing doesn’t work,” she said: Water wouldn’t empty.
Castaneda pulled out the drain, which was clogged with a gooey ball of long hair and dirt.

“You have to keep this clean,” he said, throwing the goop into the garbage.

He then checked inside the refrigerator, which was so stuffed with containers and food that it was close to breaking down.

The woman has a glass eye, the result of an episode that still haunts Loumos.

Several years ago, she was not under a court order to take medication and she was acting “really bad,” he recalls. So he went over to her apartment and got the case manager to come, too, for what is called an “intervention.” But when the police arrived, they said there was not enough evidence to detain her involuntarily.

“Within the next couple of hours, she had pulled her eye out,” he says. He is still upset about it. “Ugh,” he says. “It’s like, damn. She blinded herself. Sometimes you do everything right and it don’t work. But that’s the human condition.”
•    •    •    •
Loumos recently purchased 12 apartment units at a bargain price in the Allied Drive neighborhood. He’s excited about the idea of investing not just in buildings and people but in an entire neighborhood. But a couple of his tenants have been burglarized, and the situation got so bad that one of them needed to move after his electric guitar and a bunch of other things were stolen. Like many with mental illnesses, the young man had been marked as an easy target.

The young man, his parents, his social worker, and Loumos and Castaneda sat down recently to talk about where he’ll go next. “The dynamics of this thing aren’t working,” Loumos says. “You attracted people who are prone to take advantage of you. Is that your fault? No, it’s not your fault somebody ripped you off and broke your window.”

But Loumos and Castaneda warn it will happen again if the young man stops taking his medicine for his schizo-affective disorder and starts hanging out with the wrong crowd and using drugs again.
He is lucky. His case is being handled by one of the most thorough agencies in town, and he is getting a fair amount of support; every day, a social worker visits him in his apartment to make sure he takes his pills. “Our expectation is that you work with staff and on your treatment plan,” Loumos says. “You’re not at all how we first met you. You seem calmer and more present.”

The young man complains that the illness has stolen his ability to think clearly and to play the electric guitar. “You make a new life,” Loumos said. “You find a place to live and you stabilize yourself. Where you end up five years from now depends on you.”

For his parents, their son’s illness has been a horror story. Since he is an adult, there has been little they can do to help him, particularly because he does not believe that he is ill. He wandered around the country for months at a time, living on the streets, and the only clue that his parents sometimes got about where he was were weird phone calls.

“Mom, you were just in my room and you stole my money,” he might say from a beach in California. There was nothing they could do, even though they realized their son was terribly sick.

“To get help you have to go through the criminal system,” his mother says. The first time, she called 911 after he pushed her. The second time, he was picked up in Merrill, Wis., for speeding and then tossed in jail after police found a BB gun in his car; they did not believe his claim that he was mentally ill until he called home one night. “Mom, I’m all bloody,” he said. He had slashed his arm.

Now that he is a tenant with Housing Initiatives, his mother says, she feels like the family finally has some support. “The partnership of having somebody like Housing Initiatives is wonderful,” she says. Just the other night, when he called to say that he had heard a beeping all night but he thought it was the voices in his head again, she told him to call Housing Initiatives. They sent someone over right away who discovered that his smoke alarm was beeping because it needed a new battery.

Grateful as she is for the help, though, this mother is frustrated by the obstacles that remain as her son struggles to put his life back together. For one thing, she says, it is ironic that some of the places owned by Housing Initiatives are in what she considers dangerous areas, which will only reinforce the paranoia that some people with mental health problems have. (Indeed, another tenant in the building next to her son’s was jumped in the neighborhood and had his apartment broken into that week. A veteran, he told me that the incidents triggered his post traumatic stress disorder and make him feel like he is back in Afghanistan.)

She blames a lack of public support for people like her son. “This group is trying really hard,” she says. “But they don’t have a lot of money. The public views the mentally ill as a drag on taxes. But my son isn’t choosing to be sick. This is not his fault. He deserves a nice place to live.”

Several weeks after the meeting, her son is doing well in his new apartment, she says. He now has a moped so that he can start looking for work, but it is a discouraging pursuit. “How do you explain a five-year gap?” she asks, talking about the years he has been ill and homeless.

But he is doing better than the previous tenant to live in his studio, who is now in jail on a drug charge. “He was a risky one,” Loumos says. “But he deserved a chance. Hell, he’ll deserve a chance again.”

“We give people 10 last chances,” Castaneda says.
•    •    •    •
On a recent afternoon, shortly after Preacher John died, Loumos sat with two of his top staffers to swap stories. “There’s not only a story here, Christ, there’s a book,” Loumos says. “There’s a reality show. Not a freak show, though. These are folks who live really hard and some of them have been on the street and they’re odd and they do curious things to survive. In their view, it makes total sense, but to the rest of us it’s bizarre.”

Some, they say, think these people should just be left alone. “Like that libertarian jackass who I met at the Willy Street Co-op,” Basford says.

But most of the people they meet, Loumos says, are clearly sick. Really sick. “Nobody wants to live like this.”

They need help, and his program aims to give them back as much of their shattered lives as possible.
Preacher John’s stuff is now spread around at least half a dozen Housing Initiatives apartments. Does Loumos still think Preacher was nuts?

“No, I stopped thinking that a long time ago,” he says. But he still can’t explain the guy. The other day, while moving some more things into another tenant’s apartment, he found an envelope Preacher was keeping in the back of his dresser. It was stuffed with dozens and dozens of keys.

Do they ever get frustrated trying to understand and help some of these people?

“It’s not depressing for me, but it would be for someone else,” Loumos says.

“You see the despair around you. That can get depressing,” Castaneda says. “You see how everyone suffers with their demons.”

He’s an artist, so he’s sensitive, Loumos says, teasing Castaneda.

Loumos says he doesn’t get down, he gets mad. Mad that there’s not enough funding. Mad that for every person they can house, they need to turn away two or three more. “I have a lot of anger in me,” he says, because these people deserve more.

“If you gave me five million dollars, I could end homelessness in Madison. Make it ten million.”
Short of that, you do what you can, he says. You try to be a good landlord. “We’re not the therapists,” he says. “We can’t stop them from backsliding into things that are harming them. But we can make sure they have a safe place to live.”

Copyright 2011 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Update on Preacher John celebration

From Dean Loumos:

Upon hearing and talking from many people we decided that the day and location were not convenient and too small to hold the anticipated crowd.  The location and day and time are the following;

Sunday, August 7, 4:00 to 10:00 at Burrows Park on 25 Burrows Rd.  – The Park is off of N. Sherman near the Clock Shop.

There will be food and drinks provided but we would like people to bring a dish to pass.

At the celebration there will be time for people to make comments throughout the evening and I am anticipating numerous toasts.  John wished to be cremated and his ashes will be in attendance.  His good friend Danny Cain will be leaving the next day to deliver his ashes to Independence Pass in Colorado.  Anyone who would like to make that trip can begin to make those arrangements and can finalize them with Danny or you can contact me and I will fill you in. 

There will also be an Obit soon in the paper with these details as well as a feature article next week in the Cap Times about Housing Initiatives that will mention John’s contribution to our organization prominently.  If you have any questions please email back or you can call me at 608 332 2095.  I’m hoping to see as many of you as can make it on the 7th.  I’m sure John would appreciate such a gathering,


Dean Loumos

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Doug "Preacher John" Pracko, in memoriam

Below is a note on the passing of Doug “Preacher John” Pracko – our longtime lead maintenance staffer. Preacher died last night after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 61.

Along with the work he did for Housing Initiatives, Preacher will be remembered for his kindness and unbound humanity. This made him many friends with the staff and others in the homeless services community and allowed him to develop a special rapport with our clients.


From: Dean Loumos []
Sent: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 2:20 PM
To: Dean Loumos
Subject: My friend Preacher John passed

Last night about 8:30 John passed.  He had been in a lot of pain the last couple days and we were able to stabilize him with some powerful meds and he spent a peaceful afternoon.  His breathing got a little heavy in the evening and then very difficult and finally just stopped.  His pain is over and I am truly relieved and grateful for that.  He was in the Hospice and the staff there were very helpful.  He also benefited by having many friends come and be with him and provide him with support.

John will be cremated and his remains will be taken by Danny Kane, an old friend of his, to Colorado but, prior to his leaving we will be having a celebration at;

Bunky’s 2425 Atwood on Sunday, July 31 at 4:00.  We will have food and there will be a wine and beer cash bar.  There will be an opportunity for people to make some remarks and we will also have some entertainment.  Please also bring any pictures you may have of John as we would like to put them together and copy as many of them as possible for people to share.

I have never known anyone quite like John and I will miss him dearly.  I know that many of you feel the same so if you cannot make it please contact me and I can fill you in on any details you may need to know.   

Dean Loumos
608 332 2095