Phoenix's Most At-Risk Homeless Find Their Way, Thanks to a Team of "Navigators"

Russell Jefferson waves at the two women standing in front of his apartment.

He hobbles through the crosswalk on Seventh Avenue south of Osborn, pushing a makeshift cart with groceries from a nearby Bashas'.

Jefferson's humble apartment of about a year is his first real home in a decade or so, he says. He is a battered 50-year-old who survived on Phoenix's cruelest streets — one previous sleeping spot was downtown on a grassy knoll at St. Mary's Basilica.

He says he's been homeless on and off for much of his life, and more often than not since he and his brother migrated here in 1985.

The women greet him with warm hugs, which he returns with a toothless smile.

Jefferson invites them in.

Shelves in the living room are packed with books (mostly self-help and potboilers) and movies. Handwritten motivational sayings are tacked up here and there.

A framed certificate showing that he once completed a program with the Salvation Army hangs on a wall, near a photo of Frankenstein, under which he has written his name: "Russ."

Jefferson is on a tight budget, but he's thrilled to have a budget at all.

"Poverty is very time-consuming," he says.

He pays his $192 portion of the monthly rent through a Phoenix nonprofit, HOM Inc., which helps homeless individuals and families affected by mental illness.

Jefferson was approved about a year ago for Social Security disability, which provides him a monthly check of $725.

The state considers Jefferson "seriously mentally ill," and he has access to certain services through Magellan of Arizona, a firm with a contract to provide treatment to thousands of people in Maricopa County and part of Pinal County.

His bevy of medications, which include antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs and painkillers for his bum feet, are covered through Magellan or AHCCCS, Arizona's version of Medicaid.

Jefferson says the two women and his unlikely friendship with Phoenix police officer Nick Margiotta (who heads the police department's Crisis Intervention Training program) keep him afloat.

"I'm just an old man with a lot of reasons to be gone by now," he says.

"My body is kind of falling apart. I'm an addict. But I'm alive, and I got these friends right here who really care for me. They are my support system. They are my saints. I'm just one of the lucky ones."

Listening in, the women say "awwww" in unison.

They are Jeanne Allen and Liz DaCosta, peer support specialists for Community Bridges, a nonprofit that offers behavioral health programs around Arizona.

The "peer" part of their job titles signifies that they, too, once were homeless and addicted to substances — illegal drugs, in each of their cases.

That the pair survived their own darkest times, rebuilt their broken lives, and now work hard to help people such as Russ Jefferson is extraordinary.

So, in his way, is Jefferson himself, a chronic shadow dweller who found a sliver of hope one day and grabbed at it.

That ray of light is an ambitious program led by the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness.

It is called Project H3.

In late April 2010, social workers and about 150 volunteers hit streets, alleyways, parks, and other crannies (mostly in downtown Phoenix) for three mornings in a row starting at 3:30 a.m.

Their aim: identify the 50 chronically homeless people most at risk of dying.

The pre-dawn survey came as state and county officials were implementing unprecedented cutbacks in services to thousands of indigent adults (some of them homeless) with serious behavioral and substance abuse problems.

Those three nights marked the birth of the Valley's version of Project H3. Though its name sounds like a CIA operation, the three Hs stand for home, health, and hope.

The program began with little funding but much promise, says Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness executive director Joan Serviss.

Community Bridges and Southwest Behavioral Health promised in-kind contributions up front to Project H3 to cover the cost of the navigators. Great start, but Serviss says, "We didn't have the housing and the funding in general lined up. We just had a great and potentially very viable idea."

But after the successful April 2010 street survey, the city of Phoenix promised housing vouchers for 25 homeless people through federal Housing and Urban Development grants. Mesa and Glendale followed suit with vouchers of their own.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security agreed to provide $40,000 — not from "new" money appropriated by the Arizona Legislature, but by shifting some funds around in its line-item budget.

Catholic Healthcare West chipped in $45,000, a generous sum in difficult economic times.

Clearly, Project H3 was built on a lean and mean economic model. Much like its clients, the program will have to stay that way to survive.

"We can never say we know what the state budget will look like next year or after that," Serviss says, "but we are going to keep this going, whatever it takes. Project H3 means everything to many people."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin