ADAR SCHNEIDER, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CENTER
I sat down with a man named Jeff* in front of the CVS on 21st street, bringing him the ham sandwich he had asked me for. He’s been sitting in front of the CVS for nearly half his life. Jeff is a man facing schizophrenia and drug addiction, and has been chronically homeless for twenty years. He’s also one of the warmest, friendliest people I’ve met.
When we think about what homelessness looks like in a community, we often envision the same people sitting in the same places. But chronic homelessness, when an adult has been homeless for over one year or has experienced four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, is estimated to affect 18% of the homeless population. This means that 82% of those who lose their homes manage to transition back out of homelessness. The chronically homeless are some of the most vulnerable, and are almost universally disabled, usually mentally.
Jeff is unemployed. He hasn’t been able to hold a steady job since his onset of schizophrenia when he was my age, 21. But he does still have a strong sense of pride. He told me about an organization in DC called Green Door which provides support services for people with mental illness. He goes every day, and does art workshops, life skills trainings, group therapy, and sees a case worker. Through Green Door, Jeff has found friends, emotional support, and recently, housing assistance.
Public housing assistance has traditionally asked for guarantees from its recipients: Do you have a steady income? Do you have good credit? Are you clean from any substances? Only then can you expect to be put on the long list of people waiting for subsidized housing. This often leaves those that find themselves unable to fend off addiction or without the tools to keep a job chronically homeless – like Jeff.
Pathways to Housing created a model which shows that it’s actually cheaper to give the chronically homeless housing for free than to rack up costs by having government pay for shelters, prisons, emergency rooms, or psychiatric wards. Called the Housing First approach, the paradigm believes that it is not only unreasonable to be expected to have a steady job, good credit, and clean record while homeless; it is nearly impossible. That’s why so many who become chronically homeless stay that way.
In Massachusetts, a program called Home and Healthy for Good is a Housing First initiative, which has placed 723 people who were chronically homeless in apartments and has reduced the cost of a person before and after giving them free housing by $9,372 annually.
DC’s Housing First initiative has been operating through Pathways to Housing since 2004, and claims to have ended homelessness and supported recovery for 600 individuals. Not only does their program get people off the streets who otherwise would be considered ineligible, but they keep them off the streets with an 85-90% retention rate.
The paradigm shift to free housing for those least eligible may be a difficult transition for those who don’t see housing as a basic human right. But the numbers show that providing our most vulnerable populations with basic housing is a preventative measure that actually saves taxpayers thousands of dollars in remedial and emergency services.
People who are chronically homeless and mentally ill or otherwise disabled tend to cycle between emergency rooms, shelters, jail, and psychiatric hospitals. Homeless tend to need high-cost medical care, and stay in emergency rooms for several days longer, because they lack access to preventative care much of the time. Although chronically homeless account for 10% of shelter inhabitants, they use over 50% of shelters’ resources. And those who are arrested, often mentally ill, have nowhere to go afterward and are found back on the streets.
Housing First has been shown to reduce the cost of shelters, emergency rooms, jail and psychiatric hospitals by combining supportive housing services. For example, a study of homeless people in New York City with mental illness found that by providing permanent housing, use of emergency shelters decreased by 60%, plus additional decreases in public medical, mental health, city jails and state prison services.
Through public-private partnerships such as the DC Housing Authority and Pathways DC, Housing First programs can offer vouchers to chronically homeless for living spaces across the city. A partnership between DC Veterans Services and Pathways DC has moved 50 veterans with serious disabilities and mental illnesses into permanent supportive housing, according to their 2012 annual report. Continuing partnerships like these is reducing the amount of resources spent on shelters, emergency medical services, and arrests.
A segment of a short documentary called @home shows not only the financial impact these programs can have, but the emotional and physical effects as well. With housing, those who used to be chronically homeless are better able to care for themselves and work toward fully integrating themselves back into their community.
Through housing assistance at Green Door, Jeff was set to move into a community house two days after I spoke with him. He will continue to receive support there, and he hopes to one day be able to live fully independently. By supporting programs that help our most vulnerable, we help our communities thrive while easing the burden of the tax-paying middle class.
*Name has been changed for confidentiality.
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