PHOENIX — Project Haven, a new kind of homeless shelter for senior citizens, is helping them to quickly stabilize their lives.
A growing number of older Arizonans are experiencing homelessness leading to a "silver tsunami" of seniors needing shelter, said Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services.
John Merkel, 56, is one of them. "I had some 401k that I cashed in, but it wasn't enough to sustain for any longevity," Merkel said.
But once the pandemic hit last year, so did fear that CASS dormitories could become COVID breeding grounds because of the close proximity of clients.
"We had about 30% of all of the people in our 470-bed adult shelter were senior citizens," said Glow. "Many of them have medical conditions, chronic conditions, and we knew they were most vulnerable to the pandemic."
With help from the City of Phoenix and federal CARES Act COVID relief money, CASS contracted with a Valley hotel for nearly 100 rooms.
The facility allowed homeless seniors to socially distance.
Ultimately, Project Haven did not just prevent sickness, it healed souls.
"You're moving into a palace, basically," Merkel said about the hotel.
"I came here, and my eyes just opened up - my whole spirit," said Theresa, a Project Haven client who asked ABC15 to use only her first name.
Having a private bathroom, a door to your room, and a meal ready in a fridge can restore dignity, which readies a person to strive and thrive.
"The model that's focused on their needs has brought other partners to the table with additional housing resources," Glow said. "We also were able to bring in behavioral health at the front end and partners working with us, AARP, the Area Agency on Aging, and more case managers to work with people."
Caseworkers are on-site to help bring resolutions in job searches, family reunifications, or rental assistance.
"We've wanted to create this for a very long time," said Derik Roof, manager of Project Haven. "One of the silver linings of COVID is that we finally got the money to do it."
Project Haven’s estimated to cost more than $4.5 million over the course of 15 months, but Glow said it’s financially prudent.
"They're homeless a shorter amount of time when they get the better care," Glow said, "and that's less costly to the system."
In a year, Project Haven has served 217 senior citizens with 70% of them finding positive housing outcomes. The results are so good, CASS hopes to continue this program even after the pandemic ends.
There is one limitation because CASS’s contract ends in September with the hotel.
Because of the economic impact of the pandemic, there are several closed, vacant hotels locally. CASS is working with partners to buy one to make Project Haven permanent.
"We do have a location in mind where we would be able to shelter and serve about 130 seniors nightly," Glow said.
Merkel has felt connected and comfortable at Project Haven, but he's also preparing to move on.
"Right now looking for a general manager job in an area restaurant," Merkel said.
With renewed confidence, Merkel says it's just a matter of time before he is employed and living in his own place.