Since suffering a near-fatal asthma attack in the summer of 2014, 51-year-old Peter Bowser has been hospitalized 20 times. Doctors believe Bowser's asthma was exacerbated by his living conditions: a resident of a Camden homeless shelter, he left the facility each morning and walked several miles to a library, where he could stay indoors to get relief from hot or cold weather.
Last month, Bowser became one of the first people to be placed in an apartment through Camden County's new "Housing First" program, aimed at reducing chronic homelessness and expensive emergency room visits.
Since Bowser moved out of the shelter, first into a hotel room provided by the program and eventually into a one-bedroom apartment in Maple Shade that he shares with his fiancée, he hasn't visited the hospital once.
"I am overwhelmed," Bowser said this week. "It makes me so happy that I'm almost speechless about it. . . . Like my dad always told me, there's nothing like having your own home."
Announced by county leaders in February, the pilot program is paid for by state, county, and local health-care providers. The first phase has provided housing to 50 people in Camden County identified as chronically homeless or high-cost health care users. The program also provides services like medical care, drug treatment, and job training. Unlike many shelters, which require individuals to be drug-free to secure a bed, the model provides shelter first, then treats the client in longer-term settings.
Jeffrey C. Brenner, director of Cooper University's Institute of Urban Health and founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, said that moving people into apartments reduces unnecessary hospitalizations and emergency room visits and arrests, and costs thousands less per person each year than housing them in shelters. Brenner cites data from Housing First programs across the country in cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, which he says have proved to be cost-effective and successful in reducing homelessness.
The state's poorest city, Camden, has historically had a large homeless population. A survey by an advocacy group counted about 650 homeless people in Camden County last year, more than 100 of them children, but advocates say that figure may not count scores of others who live with friends or do not admit to homelessness.
Bowser, originally from Atlantic County, said he worked as an auto-body technician for about 20 years. He also worked for nine years in a window factory in Sicklerville, Camden County. At 34, he was diagnosed with asthma, a condition that doctors suspect could be related to chemicals used in his previous jobs.
Bowser moved to Delaware with his wife for some years, but moved back to New Jersey in 2012, broke, after getting a divorce. His health problems became debilitating. He planned to live with his brother in Atlantic City while he got back on his feet, but said his brother backed out on a promise to let him move in. Bowser moved shortly afterward to Camden, where he was able to secure a bed in a series of homeless shelters. He met his fiancée, 52-year-old Cheryl Pew, at one of them.
In addition to Bowser, two other homeless clients have been moved to homes in Collingswood this year.
Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez said that program organizers face some resistance from residents who may not want clients placed in their neighborhoods, but that educating communities about the program often helps.
"When you're homeless, the stress over that condition so often keeps you entrenched in that situation," she said. "Being able to put them in housing where they can breathe, it changes the dynamic for that person, because one of the biggest hurdles has been addressed. If we can put these individuals in a safe place, that's going to eliminate a lot of the challenges in their lives. . . . And I think if people start to see how this benefits a community, people will start to open their doors."
Bowser and Pew now have furniture, and a kitchen where Pew cooks for them. Bowser can keep on top of his medications and receive his disability payments and Social Security. They no longer have to awake in the morning and leave their bedroom and wander in search of a place to pass the hours before the shelter lets them back in.
"We broke that routine," Bowser said. "Now we're in a different routine. We're living life as it's supposed to be."