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First Step To Ending Homelessness? Provide Homes

Posted on June 4, 2014 at 4:25 PM

First Step To Ending Homelessness? Provide Homes

Empirical evidence shows that just giving people what they need is the simplest, most effective way of fighting poverty.


When it comes to American politics and public discourse there are few dirtier words than the “s”-word: socialism. In the minds of provincial Americans who have never been outside of America’s borders in the modern era, the word conjures disquieting images of soldiers on parade in Red Square, empty shop shelves in Eastern Europe, and benighted states in the developing world where starvation and mass privation create refugees and hordes of glassy-eyed children with distended bellies.


It’s a cliché, of course, since the growth of both American capitalism and the great American middle class were intimately linked to state intervention, control and redistribution, but it is nonetheless true that most Americans are uneasy with the term and its connotations. In particular, the idea that top-down, collectivist solutions to social ills can be beneficial is galling to those claiming to have worked hard — as if others have not — to make something of the opportunities given to them. Success, they claim, requires hard work, and the worst thing one can do is to remove the incentives to work hard, something on which socialist redistribution of wealth is actively premised.


Indeed, it is often better to teach a man to fish rather than to keep providing him with one day after day, but research suggests that the dreaded loss of incentive that comes with providing a handout is neither so bad to the individual, nor, in fact, ultimately so costly to society. To see why, just take a look at what is going on in the area of public policy toward chronic homelessness, where a radical new socialist philosophy is now taking root and effectively ending the scourge of homelessness for the indigent as we know it.


Commonly referred to as “Housing First,” the policy is premised on the notion that to actually solve the problem of chronic homelessness we should first, you know, actually give people a place to live. Solve that problem, say its proponents, and individuals and families can start rebuilding their lives by taking the steps necessary for reintegrating into a community’s economic and social life from a safe, secure location. So relieved of the psychological burden of having to find a play to stay every night and provided with a home base from which to operate, people who fall into homelessness can — with additional support — once again become productive members of society.


What’s more, by providing housing to those who most need it — which tends to be the chronically mentally ill — we keep people off the streets who might otherwise impose other, greater costs on society than the price of a small efficiency apartment somewhere. In theory, Housing First policies cut down on crime, police calls, jailing, emergency room visits and a whole host of other burdens placed on our communities by those who have no place to go and nowhere to stay, but who must be cared for anyway at public expense.


It sounds good, of course, but what is even better is that it actually works. For about a decade now, several states have been experimenting with the philosophy through programmatic changes to their homeless policies that emphasize finding homes for the homeless first, handling other problems second, and empirical research so far has documented amazing results. In the state of Utah, for instance, the institution of a statewide policy to give the homeless homes has seen an unprecedented 74 percent decline in homelessness since the state put a Housing First program into effect statewide in 2005.


What’s more, Utah’s results have come with significant savings attached, as each homeless person provided a home saves the state $5,670 per person. Yes, you read that right: not only is this program working to reduce the number of people sleeping on Utah’s streets, but it is actually reducing overall welfare costs. The state determined that it was cheaper to provide people with a social worker and a place to stay — calculated to cost the state some $11,000 per year — than the alternative which, once the total costs of homelessness on society were estimated, ended up being a much higher $16,670 per year.


If that weren’t remarkable enough, it seems the results in Utah have been replicated elsewhere, too. In North Carolina, for instance, the city of Charlotte built an 85-unit facility called Moore Place in 2013 especially for the indigent homeless. This resulted in a marked reduction in the use of social services by the population using the new housing units. In the space of just one year, the city saw 447 fewer visits to emergency rooms, 372 fewer days spent in hospitals, and a truly remarkable 78 percent reduction in arrests and 84 percent fewer days spent in jail. In total, the benefits associated with the housing program outweighed the costs to the tune of $1.8 million in just one year.


Likewise in Boston, where the institution of a Housing First philosophy in the midst of the Great Recession for the local indigent population has been so successful that placement of the truly needy into long-term housing where they can be looked after by social welfare agencies has led to the slow shuttering of the network of emergency shelters that used to temporarily warehouse them for years on end. As in Utah and the city of Charlotte, Boston and the state of Massachusetts found that the new approach to housing the needy led to significant cost savings of about $2 million a year due to fewer calls on other, more expensive public services.


Then, in an example that perfectly demonstrates the utter folly of what our society has been doing for so long, a prison in Colorado was converted into a Housing First-philosophy homeless shelter for $3.9 million. When the facility ramps up to serving its full population of 200 individuals sometime later this year, total savings to the state from a reduced demand for social services will exceed the state’s appropriation by nearly $1.4 million. Given that there are an estimated 17,000 homeless individuals in the state, if Colorado were to supply housing arrangements for the rest of its homeless population at similar cost per person, the savings to the state would be immense.


Categories: Homeless No More!

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