‚ÄúThe mayor dropped in for Thanksgiving dinner.
‚ÄúTo me, our employees, our residents, that means: ‚ÄėI am somebody.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
– City of Gaithersburg Homeless Advocate, Jimmy Frazier Bey
The Wells/Robertson House is a uniquely Gaithersburg program offering transitional housing for people who are homeless and in recovery from chemical addiction. It has become a model in the field.
People who know it say its success derives from the singular partnership of business, government and community that together identified a problem, studied solutions and took action.Ask Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz, and he will tell you the same thing as the city‚Äôs homeless advocate, Jimmy Frazier Bey. They say that in the world of recovery from homelessness and addiction, the city of Gaithersburg‚Äôs Wells/Robertson House is special.
Mary Wells Robertson was the last owner of the house, which sits on land adjoining City Hall. The city purchased the house in 1987, and it was restored in 1988.
According to Katz, who served on the City Council at the time, Gaithersburg purchased the property ‚Äúbecause of its proximity to City Hall.‚ÄĚ
At the same time, the city was struggling to deal with the problems of itinerant individuals hanging around Olde Towne.
‚ÄúThe merchants of Olde Towne were angered by the presence of people who appeared homeless, who were drinking and hanging around [the business district],‚ÄĚ said Katz. ‚ÄúPolice were involved, but unless there was a crime, little could be done.
‚ÄúThe city had always contributed funds to local county shelters and to the Lord‚Äôs Table food kitchen [at St. Martin‚Äôs Church], but there was still a problem. Ed Bohrer was the mayor at the time. He got a group together — of course, merchants — and many other people, too.‚ÄĚ
According to Katz, when the group met for the first time or two, people were ‚Äúall over the place‚ÄĚ with different ideas to solve the problems caused by the itinerant folks, and emotions were raw. Then — a shift.
‚ÄúOnce people started listening to each other, they realized the problem had many aspects to consider,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThey decided to do a survey to learn more and understand why people [abused alcohol and other substances] even after undergoing treatment.‚ÄĚ
They learned a lot about the problem, Katz explained — including the fact that once out of treatment and clean, some addicted people had nowhere to go but back to the same friends and environment. They discovered that some people needed a safe place to learn how to live.
This core group, led by merchants, decided to put the Wells/Robertson program in that house. The goal of the program is to break the cycle of relapse, homelessness and treatment. The method is to provide people with a clean, safe, sober, long-term environment in which to pull their lives back together, to become committed to a program of recovery and learn the skills necessary to allow them to become sober, independent, contributing members of the community.
In 1988, there was a lot to do to get the house ready for such a program.
‚ÄúThey went to the community for assistance,‚ÄĚ Katz said. ‚ÄúThe outpouring was unbelievable.‚ÄĚ
Katz recalls with some emotion that a basement wall of the old Victorian was painted with the words, ‚ÄúRestored with loving care.‚ÄĚ
Today the house accommodates four female and 10 male residents, and one live-in member. Each resident shares a room. Staff is on duty 24-hours each day.
Alcoholics and addicts living on the streets of Gaithersburg complete alcohol and/or drug treatment before admission. Other treatment facilities make referrals as well.
Between 1988 and 2010, Wells/Robertson had 547 residents in the program. Many more individuals were given other services such as food, shelter, clothing and basic needs, or placed into treatment to aid a transition back into community life.
Residents are required to have full-time employment or be in job training/school; pay rent; work to pay off debts and eventually open a savings account in their own names; do chores to maintain the House; attend a 12-step meeting daily; obtain a sponsor and do 12-step service work; and learn whatever daily living skills are necessary.
Statistics gathered since the program‚Äôs inception show it to be a remarkable success story in addressing homelessness and addiction.
Gaithersburg‚Äôs Homeless Assistance Program is overseen by Frazier Bey. His office is in the Wells/Robertson House, located at 1 Wells Avenue, and it is also his responsibility to oversee the Wells/Robertson House.
Today, he says it is not unusual for homeless persons to come into Wells/Robertson House from the street to talk about available treatment and housing.
Is there a waiting list? At any given time, ‚Äúat least 20 or 30,‚ÄĚ said Frazier Bey.
There is a need for more places like Wells/Robertson, he said, but duplicating the effort would require building on the same strong bond to community groups, including business, that is the backbone of the program today.
Frazier Bey recalled that William Schlossenburg, [then of the Gazette Newspapers and now] director of development and community partnerships at The Universities at Shady Grove once said they had made a mistake naming Wells/Robertson.
‚ÄúIt should have been called Well/Robertson Home.‚ÄĚ
In addition to inclusion in the city annual budget, funding support for the house is available each year from the county, state and federal sources. The house is also supported by the nonprofit Friends of Wells/Robertson House, Inc. (FWRH), which was established to provide broader opportunities for furthering the financial support of the program.
According to both Katz and Frazier Bey, a key to the home‚Äôs success is that many members of the original committee that spearheaded the Wells/Robertson House, then served as board members of FWRH, and the bond between Gaithersburg‚Äôs business and other communities and Wells/Robertson has continued to flourish since.
‚Äú[Gaithersburg City Manager] Angel Jones sometimes stops in just to say, ‚ÄėYou‚Äôre doing a great job,‚Äô‚ÄĚ says Frazier Bey. ‚ÄúThe residents know she is the city manager and that she has taken the time to come over just to see them.
‚ÄúThe residents sense this bond to the community and benefit from it.‚ÄĚ
So what is the secret to success at Wells/Robertson?
Maybe it is not just one thing, but key is this, says Frazier Bey. ‚ÄúThis is a city so founded on values — the people who are here adapt, get involved and share those values.‚ÄĚ
For more information about the Wells/Robertson house, visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov/poi/default.asp?POI_ID=31&TOC=107;1715;129;31.