By Katie Bass, Project Associate.
There has always been a debate regarding how to best solve homelessness and it’s an issue for which I care deeply. Recently, there was a police shooting in my hometown, Albuquerque, of a homeless man, James Boyd, 38. It was a tragedy and one that in my opinion could, and should, have been avoided for many reasons. The shooting is currently being investigated. The man had a long history of mental health issues and had been approached by officers for illegally camping in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. This tragedy, and those like it, are preventable.
There are several different methods communities take in addressing their homeless population. Some cities have taken the approach of providing the homeless with one-way tickets home in an effort to reduce the financial burden from providing food, shelter, and medical treatment. This method is somewhat controversial, as some of these programs ensure that the homeless person is being sent home to family that has accepted to take them in, while others have been accused of merely shipping the burden onto another city. These tactics are designed to simply manage the issue and reduce costs, rather than solving the problem by providing a sustainable, cost-effective plan.
The “Housing first” approach is one such method. 100,000 Homes Campaign is a national movement to use the housing first model to find permanent homes for 100,000 at-risk individuals by July 2014. There are over 200 communities nationwide participating in the effort and together they have housed more than 90,000 of America’s most vulnerable individuals, including over 25,000 Veterans. The communities are spread across the nation and include Portland, OR; Indianapolis, IN; Nashville, TN (recently profiled on 60 Minutes); Atlanta, GA and Tulsa, OK. The housing first method was designed for individuals and families that are chronically homeless and that have mental illness or substance abuse problems, and it provides them with a stable life that is supported by social services.
The problem of homelessness impacts communities of every size, it is also an expensive one. The costs associated with it include: incarcerations, emergency room visits, medical treatments, emergency shelters, food, and other social assistance. The housing first method saves taxpayers’ money and is a more efficient use of vital community investment dollars, regardless of your personal feelings towards homelessness. One study on Los Angeles estimated that the public cost for a chronically homeless person was $34,764 a year, but when those individuals were put in supportive housing, public costs dropped by 79 percent. Similarly, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article which concluded that more than $4.0 million was saved after one year of housing 95 chronically homeless individuals in Seattle. Philip Mangano, the former head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, emphasized the issue with one simple statement: "We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year." The cost-effectiveness of the program is what has been the main driver for getting public and political support.
Tulsa’s nationally recognized program is an example of the success a community can have. Together with Building Tulsa, Building Lives and other partners, The Mental Health Association in Tulsa implemented a debt-free housing model. They began by launching a capital campaign, raising funds through HUD grants, private capital, and income from Section 8 and other subsidies. They were able to use the money raised, along with federal funds, to purchase and create affordable housing in the Tulsa area. What began with 12 housing units has grown dramatically, and today they own and manage 833 housing units and 25 apartment complexes. Part of the program’s success is due to their implementation of a “mixed income, mixed population” model where 50 percent of units are dedicated to housing the chronically homeless or formally homeless and the other 50 percent to tenants at market prices. Because they own the properties debt-free, rental income supports operating costs. This model is successful. In 2012, 91 percent of those housed that had previously been homeless had not returned to homelessness.
In the face of such tragedies like the shooting of James Boyd, it’s inspiring to hear about communities, such as Tulsa, coming together to find long-term, sustainable solutions for such an important issue. Homelessness affects everyone in the community, and the housing first model has been shown to be cost-effective and to reduce panhandling, alcohol and drug abuse, and the use of emergency services. As economic development professionals, so much of what we do is tied to raising standards of living for every community member. By getting people off the streets and into safe, stable housing in a supportive environment, they can increase their level of self-sufficiency, break the cycle of homelessness, and transition back into being more productive members of society. Rather than simply managing the problem of homelessness, communities can end it, reduce costs, and increase the quality of life for everyone in the community.