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Supportive Housing 101 with Tod Lipka

January 15, 2020 10:00 AM
by Constance Farrell

Supportive Housing 101 with Tod Lipka

The City of Santa Monica supports housing for people with different needs and supportive services. If you’ve ever wondered about terms like supportive housing vs. affordable housing, learn from Tod Lipka, the President and CEO of Step Up, a nonprofit organization serving Santa Monica for 33 years. 

Step Up operates five housing sites totaling 134 apartments in Santa Monica for people living with a mental illness disabilityAll were created with support from Santa Monica’s Housing Trust Fund and fill a critical need for people experiencing homelessnessTo learn more about Step Up, visit www.stepuponsecond.org. 


1. How do you describe supportive housing to a friend who is not familiar with it? 

Supportive housing is housing infused with tailored services. Supportive housing is provided to individuals who are low incomewho also have a disability, and a history of housing instability. The “supportive” part of supportive housing is the variety of services offered to help tenants be successful. In my world, supportive housing is offered to individuals who are chronically homeless AND very low income AND struggling with a disability. When housing is infused with rich supportive services, it enables an individual not only to stay housed but also to flourish as an engaged resident in our community. We’ve learned that if you have a mental or physical disability that has led to homelessness, recovery on the street is very difficult because you literally spend all your energy simply surviving. In this way, supportive housing becomes the foundation for recovery. 

The supportive services are usually provided to individuals in their home, rather than requiring them to travel to secure services and supports. We’ve learned that services are more effective and better utilized if we go to where the client is, rather than requiring them to come to us.   

We actually talk about permanent supportive housing because there is no time limit. People are supported so they can stay in their housing as long as they need or want to. In many cases, they stay for the rest of their lives. In most cases, the disability will be one that has no “cure” and the individual will manage that disability likely the rest of their life, so they need the housing to be permanent, not temporary. 

2. How is supportive housing different than affordable housing? 

Affordable housing is for households whose primary barriers are economic. They cannot afford market-rate rents without some outside supplement.  Affordable housing is for individuals who are across a wider range of incomes, but all are still considered low income.  Affordable housing can serve families while permanent supportive housing serves single individuals.  This is not always true, but generally speaking, this is the case.   

Affordable housing often provides services at the housing site, but those services tend to be more life-skill focused and less clinical. These services could be daycare, health-related support services, computer training, and food assistance.  Permanent supportive housing services can include life skills (how to clean an apartment, prepare a meal, go shopping, etc.), as well as intensive professional care such as psychiatric and medication support, nursing services, and other care services. 

3. How important is the service component of this housing model? 

The service component is essential to an individual’s success in housing. We’ve learned that with homeless people, housing without services leads to a failure to stay in housing. And services without housing never addresses an individual’s fundamental problem, that is, they don’t have a home.  

4. What strides have you witnessed people make in their lives through supportive housing? 

We know that supportive housing saves lives. Life on the street is one of great misery and stigma. You literally spend all your energy just surviving. With the foundation of housing, we’ve seen even the severest cases of individuals who were homeless for 20 or 30 years, succeed wonderfully. We’ve seen the icons of the homeless community, people everyone saw sleeping at the bus stop for years, be transformed into engaged productive members of our community, through permanent supportive housing. We know from years of evidence that permanent supportive housing, works. Even for those we saw on the street that we had given up hope of recovery. 

5. What has you most inspired about your work in 2020? 

There are more and more resources to support permanent supportive housing than ever before. And California now has an engaged Governor on this issue. The state has a key role to play in addressing homelessness that could not be filled only by the city and federal governments. The state, and Governor Newsom, will play an important and essential role in supportive housing in 2020. 

6. What motivates you most about the work you do? 

In college, I always envisioned going into community service. I could never imagine spending my time working for a company solely to make money, that just never occurred to me! My first job out of college was as an outreach worker in 1976 in downtown Hartford, CT, reaching out to isolated seniors, some of whom were homeless. I’ve spent my whole working life in service to the community, mostly in aging-related services. 

In 2001, after I started at Step Up, I realized that I was here for a reason; my own mother had mental illness but due to the stigma, we had never labeled it as a mental illness. I love what I do because I know Step Up makes a significant impact in the lives of people we serve; in fact, in many cases, it’s lifesaving support. My work allows me to interact with such a wide range of people; from some of the most famous people in the world to those who have lived invisibly on the street for decades. And all the time, I know that my energy in being directed into something that is truly good for the community. 

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