For many people struggling to make ends meet, it only takes one crisis to send things spiraling.

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In 2014 John Evans had to be placed into a medically induced coma to fight off pneumonia – the third time he had been hospitalized for the illness in less than six months.

“The doctor said ‘look, he can’t take it,’ ” Evans said during a recent interview, his oxygen tank softly whooshing with each breath in.

Evans is 65, and at the time of the hospitalization he was living at Union Gospel Mission, having ended up there after becoming homeless following the death of his wife, Diana, in 2012. After her death, Evans experienced what he calls the “total destruction of his life,” after which he ended up on the streets.

“I was so in love with my wife and she had helped me change myself into such a better person that without her, it’s like I was falling apart.”

He had received a large lump of money from insurance following her death, but as a longtime opiate addict, knew he had to give most of the money to his children.

“If I had kept it all, I would be dead,” he says.

For many people struggling to make ends meet, it only takes one crisis to send things spiraling.

“Living close to the margins can lead to homelessness really fast,” Kellie Larsen, chief program officer for Plymouth Housing, says.

During a January 2019 count there were over 11,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County. Nearly 6,000 of them were in a temporary shelter while the remaining 5,000 were sleeping outside.

Of those 11,000 over 2,000 of them are like Evans and experiencing long-term homelessness.

“There’s a HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) definition of chronic homelessness and to be very succinct it’s that you have been homeless for a year or longer and have a disability,” Larsen says.

The life expectancy of someone experiencing long-term homelessness is decades shorter than the average person – and seniors like Evans are an especially vulnerable part of that demographic.

While living at Union Gospel Mission, Evans was diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic. It was difficult for him to find space to even organize his medications, let alone set himself up with a routine to take them at a regular time every day. Additionally, the shelter requires residents to leave by 7 a.m. each morning, no matter the weather, and it was the cold winter mornings that helped contribute to Evans’ chronic pneumonia issues.

The youngest of 11 children, Evans and his family moved to Seattle in 1965. He graduated from Garfield High and after high school became a licensed cosmetologist, eventually owning a shop with his cousin in Rainier Valley called Personal Touch.

But he also has a story like much of King County’s senior homeless populations; wracked with grief following the death of his wife, extremely low income, opiate addict, ill. Not only was it difficult for Evans to find the resources he needed to help him find stable housing, he wasn’t an attractive candidate.

When his doctor said if he continued down what was his path at the time he would die, a group of social workers and advocates got him on a list for one of Plymouth Housing’s buildings.

Plymouth Housing operates under a “housing first” policy, meaning the focus is to provide a stable housing situation first, and then work on everything else.

“We don’t judge people by the worst thing they ever did,” Larsen says. “We believe housing is a human right, and so we offer housing opportunities to someone regardless of their past mistakes.”

Lowering barriers to get into housing – especially for the vulnerable senior populations – has been shown to have wonderful success rates. Not only is it cost effective for communities (stats from Plymouth show that public costs of one year of housing in a building is equal to three days at Harborview or three months in a King County jail), it’s effective on a very personal level.

Evans moved into the Langdon & Anne Simons Senior Apartment building in April of 2014. The apartment has given him a routine, access to providers to help him keep on top of his medications and better manage his physical and mental health, and most importantly a safe space to sleep every night.

He’s made friends – ones who notice when he’s not up and about during the day and come to check on him.

“And I have people that I’m used to seeing and if I don’t see them, I’m going to find out where they are,” he says.

It’s a community, and one he says, “helped me get back into life.”

It’s this sense of community that is one of the less quantifiable results of a housing-first model, but one of the most important for vulnerable populations.

“That’s the magic of supportive housing: having long-term relationships and stable housing for people; meeting people where they are in a nonjudgmental way; and reducing stigma as much as we can around whatever types of behaviors they’re having, so that we can build relationships and they will open up over time. Those are the real success stories,” Larsen says.

Plymouth Housing works to eliminate homelessness and address its causes by preserving, developing and operating safe, quality, supportive housing and by providing adults experiencing homelessness with opportunities to stabilize and improve their lives.