Closing Rental Housing Gaps for County’s Most Vulnerable Adults

Closing Rental Housing Gaps for County’s Most Vulnerable Adults

Part of an ongoing series

The Connection speaks with Sylisa Lambert-Woodward, CEO of Pathway Homes, discussing the nonprofit organization’s Housing First Model program, vouchers and what is on the horizon for residents in North Fairfax County.

Housing is a human right. So states the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sylisa Lambert-Woodward is CEO of Pathway Homes, Fairfax-based nonprofit organization that reaches out to some of the county's most vulnerable adult residents. The organization serves adults experiencing homelessness or who are unhoused and with severe mental illness and/or co-occurring disorders, such as substance abuse, developmental disabilities, and physical disorders. “The mental health conditions manifest in a way that impacts their ability to function,” Lambert-Woodward said.

These county residents confront financial inequalities. Pathway serves people whose income level is 30 percent to 0 percent of the area average median income. An AMI of less than 30 percent is considered extremely low-income. Racial inequities are documented in the Fairfax County 2022 Point-in-Time Count, which found 1,191 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January. 

Fifty percent of those experiencing homelessness identified as Black or African American, even though only 10 percent of Fairfax County’s general population identifies as Black or African American. The Point-in-Time count of people experiencing homelessness is required by the  U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at least every other year for any Continuum of Care (CoC) program, like that of Pathway, designed to promote a community-wide commitment to the goal of ending homelessness.

On Nov. 22, Lambert-Woodard said that homelessness is distressing in and of itself. There are trust difficulties to address. One of Pathways' most significant markers of success is ensuring that the individual's choice of where they reside and what community they call home is emphasized. The ability of their clients to succeed and remain independent and active in the community is dependent on it, and it improves significantly when the individual is empowered.

Attempting to navigate Fairfax County’s array of rental assistance services programs can be challenging for many people, but more so if the person is living with persistent severe mental illness and co-occurring disorders as well as health conditions. A prevalent characteristic among the individuals served by Pathway is that their mental health condition significantly impairs their functional capacity, necessitating supplementary levels of support or assistance, such as with medication management, to be independent. Support services are critical to Pathway’s services.

In the absence of an informed advocate or case manager, such as those at Pathway who collaborate with the willing person, the journey to housing can be mentally exhausting and anxiety-provoking. Even more so if the burden of eviction proceedings is underway in their current rental or if the person is unhoused or unsheltered.

Lambert-Woodward reports that the majority of Pathway's clients are either unemployed or rely on a minimum fixed income of 15 to 10 percent AMI, or $700 to $800 per month in disability benefits.

"Unfortunately, in Fairfax County, there is a mismatch between the price and availability of modest rental housing and the wages of residents with extremely low income, at or below 30 percent of the area median income (AMI), Lambert-Woodward said. ”So these individuals are just simply not going to be able to afford the cost of any type of housing unit in the county without subsidy or a form of voucher.”

“Pathway Homes is the largest recipient of HUD Continuum of Care dollars in the region and provides subsidies to individuals so that they can live in the community,” Lambert-Woodward said. Pathway has over 508 subsidies that specifically subsidize income so that individuals pay only 30 percent of their fixed income, or if they are not earning anything, they pay 0 percent, and the subsidy pays 100 percent.

Pathway Homes, Inc. provides its clientele with supportive services and individual units of stable, affordable housing located throughout the county. Pathway had expanded to a network of 427 owned, leased, or managed properties by the end of FY2022. Pathway Homes reports that it owns or leases over 500 homes in Northern Virginia as of 2023.

According to Lambert-Woodward, Pathway has observed that rents in Fairfax County have increased by $300 or more per month since lease renewals a few months ago. This has prompted Lambert-Woodward to express concern to keep serving their clients. In order to defray the expenses, Pathways either conducts fundraising or relocates individuals who are unable to renew their leases, thereby forcing them to uproot and transition to another location.

"The rent increases are phasing individuals out of their category and out of certain leasing markets even with the leasing subsidies because the subsidies are not keeping up with the increasing FMR, fair market rates,” Lambert-Woodward said.

For Pathway, it is a significant concern that 'affordable' rental housing remains affordable and does not soar in cost, making it no longer available by being inconsistent with the subsidies the organization receives.

On a positive note, though, Pathways is expanding its boundary. According to Lambert-Woodward, Pathway received a contract to not only provide Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) services but they are also going to be providing supportive housing through dedicated vouchers for an additional 50 individuals in North Fairfax County,  meaning Reston and Herndon. Lambert-Woodward is talking about 1-bedroom rental units, which are the preferred housing option for individuals who come to Pathway from a homeless situation or an unhoused state with serious mental illness. 

Pathway is committed to its Housing First Program, meaning there are no conditions that have to be met before the person moves in, according to Lambert-Woodward. Using this model, Pathway maintains a housing retention rate of at least 89 percent with clients who have traditionally been viewed as treatment-resistant and “not ready for housing.”

Housing services at Pathway Homes spans a continuum of care from highly intensive to highly independent. Most housing options have subsidies available to make housing affordable to anyone within the community. The organization also provides supportive services to others, allowing them to retain their own housing.

This Sunday, Dec. 10, celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1948. The Declaration set out, for the first time, a set of fundamental human rights, among them housing, to be universally protected. 

Article 25 of the Declaration provides, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including ... housing.”

Stable, supportive housing is merely the first step towards reintegrating into their community, rebuilding family relationships, reconnecting with their faith fellowships, and experiencing an improvement in overall physical health and psychological well-being. 

After receiving housing first, every client is matched with a support team (Assertive Community Treatment Team, Veterans Housing First Team and/or Permanent Supportive Housing Team) comprised of psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, certified addictions counselors, employment specialists, and peer health specialists. The team works together to provide comprehensive community-based treatment and support services around the clock, with a focus on integrating both health and social well-being into the recovery plan. These vital interventions are designed to empower client choice and support successful independent living.