BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
The ochre-breasted bird perched on the chain-link fence and chirped, his song wafting across the front yard and through the open window to where Jerry Grimsley sat in a tweed recliner.
“Is that a robin?” asked his sister, Vickie Chevrette.
Last year, the harbinger of spring would have symbolized another winter survived in the woods. Last week, the bird was simply a mellifluous visitor in the yard Grimsley shares with Chevrette and John Worthington.
In early January, the three packed their tents, tarps, sleeping bags, kerosene heaters and portable generators and moved from the woods near Massaponax, in Spotsylvania, to a small home in the same county.
They were among 20 people to receive homes as part of an effort to house chronically homeless people who have mental illness.
Local philanthropist Doris Buffett funded the effort with $1 million, which allowed Micah Ecumenical Ministries to buy seven homes.
“Miss Buffett donated a whole bunch of money to help the homeless, and we’re real grateful,” Grimsley said.
‘WE ALL NEED A HOME’
For Buffett, the money made perfect sense. Throughout the nation, homeless service providers have been seeing success by providing housing first and then attacking issues that lead to homelessness.
“People are going to do better if they have a place to live, which is intuitive,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “We all need a home to thrive and achieve well-being. Everything is going to be better if people have a place to live.”
A study that appeared earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that homeless people with mental illness were more likely to find stability if they are provided housing than if they simply receive mental health services.
Buffett studied the housing-first approach and believed in it.
“It sounds very daring but it works, it really works,” said the Fredericksburg resident, who is the sister of billionaire Warren Buffett. “I don’t do any sort of wishful thinking when I give money. I want to know it’s going to work, otherwise the money is wasted.”
About one-quarter of homeless Americans suffer from a severe mental illness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
At Micah, case managers have already taken dozens of clients off the street and into housing. When clients have a stable home, case managers continue to work on issues such as income, employment, substance abuse and mental illness.
In the past five years, chronic homelessness in the area has dropped by 58 percent, according to numbers just released from the annual Point in Time count of the homeless. The tally was performed in late January, and counted 35 chronically homeless, said Micah Director Meghann Cotter.
She hopes that number will drop as more of the chronically homeless move into housing.
“It is really hard work to take this population, sometimes with no income, and put them into housing,” Cotter said. “But I have never seen someone be able to truly effectively overcome issues until they know where they’re going to sleep tonight, until they know where they’re going to eat tomorrow.”
THREE JOIN FORCES
Now that he has a roof over his head, Grimsley is trying to apply for disability payments. The former sheet metal worker lost his job in 2008 when an old back injury worsened. Two years later, he lost his home near Loriella Park in Spotsylvania.
Grimsley, who is in constant pain, fashioned a cane from a piece of wood, galvanized metal and two 50-cent coins. He used the same ingenuity when setting up camp in the woods, designing an igloo-like structure of blue and gray tarps.
He often woke in the predawn hours of winter nights to brush snow off his tent. Finally, he engineered a domed roof using tarps, tennis balls, ropes and sticks. That roof bowed under the weight of snow, instead of collapsing as tents often do.
He eventually met Worthington, who has slept in “tents, garages, shacks, anyplace I could find” for about 10 years.
The two men soon shared a campsite, and in the summer of 2013, Chevrette joined them after breaking off a volatile relationship.
Chevrette was the only one in the trio to receive a regular income, $981 a month in disability payments. Camping wasn’t a cheap endeavor. During the winter, they spent $87 a week on kerosene for three heaters.
They also bought fuel for small, 800-watt generators that could charge cellphones and run a drop-light and a laptop, which they used to watch classic sitcoms like “MASH” and “I Love Lucy.”
The woods carried many hazards and inconveniences. Chevrette learned to bathe with baby wipes. The group also discovered the importance of storing food in airtight containers after possums made off with a new tub of butter.
And Grimsley once ended up in the hospital after inadvertently camping on top of a family of ticks.
So news of a new home was welcomed.
“We were ecstatic,” Worthington said. “I giggled like a giddy schoolgirl.”
HOME, SWEET HOME
They stopped by to check out the four-bedroom home one cold, wintry afternoon.
“We looked in the windows and we were like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty nice!’” Grimsley said.
He picked out a first-floor bedroom, so he could look out the window.
“In the camp, I couldn’t really see outside,” he said.
They packed up their gear, but didn’t need to bring everything. Worthington sold his small generator to earn enough for his first month’s rent. He and Grimsley each pay $150, while Chevrette pays $300.
Micah leaders figure the rent of each home at $600 a month, and divvy costs according to renters’ incomes, Cotter said. People who can’t pay their share can volunteer at Micah to make up the difference.
“There’s something powerful about letting people contribute and pay for their own needs,” Cotter said.
Grimsley, Chevrette and Worthington moved in on Jan. 7. To their surprise, Micah provided many of the household items: a sofa and recliner, shower curtains, dishes, beds, a washer and dryer, dishwasher detergent, towels, a broom and a mop.
“We’re just extremely grateful to Micah and to Miss Buffett for giving us this chance to be independent and safe,” Chevrette said.
She and the guys have settled into life within the buttery walls of their new home. They’ve already welcomed visits from Grimsley’s four young grandchildren.
Grimsley has developed a signature dish, shepherd’s pie. At the camp, he fried catfish and cooked frozen lasagna using a water-filled aluminum roasting pan over the kerosene heater. In the oven, making dinner is much quicker and easier.
They moved into the new home in time to avoid this winter’s worst snowstorms.
“I sit in my room, look out the window and just smile,” Grimsley said. But Chevrette couldn’t help joking about the old days.
“When it starts snowing, I tease John and say, ‘You better stay up tonight and clear the snow off the roof,’” she said.
“God has really blessed us,” he said. “We don’t even own a snow shovel now.”
Amy Flowers Umble: 540.735-1973