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Homeward Bound

After 35 years, the Daily Planet is changing the way it does business.

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Shekima Floyd, 24, is one. She came to Richmond from Norfolk in December 2001, shifting from the South Side to the West End before finding the Daily Planet. Homeless, Floyd started smoking crack cocaine, she recalls. With the Planet’s help she went through a three-month rehab program at Rubicon, the inpatient substance-abuse program the Planet contracts with. She continued to slip some after that, spending much of the summer in jail for a drug charge. The Planet has been her constant, she says. “A lot of people look at the Planet and think it doesn’t do anything. And if you just come and hang out, nothing will get done,” she says. Floyd has worked hard to pull herself up. And she says the Planet gives her the support and structure she needs to stay straight. Today, four-and-a-half months pregnant, Floyd is enrolled in the Planet’s Vocational and Educational Training program. She works part time at the Planet. She just found an apartment, she says excitedly. And she has an interview for a job with the YWCA.

Prizzio says Floyd is a good example of how the face of homelessness is changing. Accompanying the changes, which reflect a national trend, Prizzio says, is a shift in the philosophy of how society views and responds to the homeless. The Daily Planet is trying to follow suit. In the past, shelters and free services often enabled the cycle of homelessness to continue, he says. Today Prizzio and the Planet are pushing empowerment.

It’s an emerging “Planet philosophy,” says Alexander Slaughter, president of the board of directors for the Daily Planet and an attorney with McGuireWoods.

Slaughter’s involvement with the Planet goes back 18 years, he says, to a time when the nonprofit’s sole purpose was to help the down-and-out simply by getting them off the streets. Initially, the program was an outreach of Jewish Family Services aimed at helping youth in crisis. The idea, says Slaughter, was that teens could call for help from a phone booth and, not unlike Superman, emerge feeling empowered, if only a little, to choose a better path. But the need was for more than that, and the Daily Planet developed.

But Slaughter echoes Prizzio’s assertion that the role of such organizations, the Daily Planet in particular, is changing. And they say it’s risky business. “Traditionally, we’ve been gap fillers and it’s difficult to have a niche when you’re a gap filler,” Slaughter says. “We recognized that if the Planet was to continue to serve its purpose or even survive, we’d have to do a lot of work.”

When Prizzio took the job as head of the Planet 13 months ago, he put in place the tenet that the Planet is more than a place to escape the elements. It is a place to prompt self-sufficiency. People seeking services such as health care, counseling or vocational training now must specify why they are there and explain what barriers keep them from moving on and achieving their goals — think of it as a holistic approach to homelessness.

To hear Prizzio tell it, it seems as much a revolution as an evolution. And in order for it to work, he says, the Planet must sharpen, redefine and expose itself.

Prizzio says that partnerships with organizations such as Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, Homeward and the University of Richmond will help turn the Daily Planet into a significantly different place.

Recently Homeward, an umbrella nonprofit that acts as a clearinghouse for resources on homelessness and regional services, named the Daily Planet as a “central intake” for all the homeless people in Richmond. It is a first for the city and mirrors what Philadelphia and other larger cities have done. Paid for and staffed by Commonwealth Catholic Charities, the central intake process enters everyone who comes to the Planet into a database. By accounting for their clients, Prizzio says, organizations can streamline services and provide a better means of ensuring them.

Those services are expanding as the homeless population grows. In 2002, the Planet’s Healthcare for the Homeless program responded to 3,000 “patient encounters” for things like immunizations, dental visits, physicals and screenings. That number jumped to 5,000 in 2003, Prizzio says, with a 35 percent increase in women and families. Likewise, the Planet’s delivery of mental-health services increased by more than 100 percent in the same year. And by mid-February, he says, the Planet expects another swell in patients from a contract with the Medical College of Virginia to serve 400 medical and 80 mental-health indigent patients covered under VCU’s insurance plan. Also under way is collaboration with UR called “Project Strive” that aims to work with the corporate community to provide jobs for the homeless and reduce their dependency on day-labor jobs.

The Daily Planet has an operating budget of $2 million, 75 percent of which comes from federal entities such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some of that funding, along with $450,000 from the Virginia Housing Development Authority, is enabling the Planet to open another facility this spring. Located at 29th and Hull streets just south of the James, the Planet’s new Safe Haven will provide residential care for up to 20 chronically mentally ill homeless people. The program had existed previously in another location but had served only eight individuals.

“I am very pleased and supportive of the changes that are taking place at the Daily Planet,” says Reggie Gordon, executive director for Homeward. “Peter Prizzio has been very active in the community problem-solving process. And what they’re doing to reposition the Daily Planet will provide the best outcomes and measurement of success for the population they serve.”

Still, as the Daily Planet’s approach to homelessness and its programs appear to change, the unmistakable two-story building at 517 W. Grace St. remains the same. People come here to shower, to do laundry, to “bank,” using an escrow account managed by the Planet. Or they come to hang out.

On a recent afternoon, people, mostly men, mill about outside in the parking lot. One man asks Prizzio if he has a minute to talk. Prizzio says yes, reaching out to shake the man’s hand. Prizzio says the Planet’s community center here is well-planted. He dismisses talk about any move in the near future to relocate closer to its partner, Freedom House, once its new facility is built near the Oliver Hill Courts Building and the city jail. For now, Prizzio appears to envision this place, only better. He’d like his clinic to look just like one in the West End, he says. He’d like to reach a point where the homeless could come to the Planet and see a podiatrist or an optometrist, for instance. “The need is out there,” he says. “We’re just scratching the surface.” S

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