August 19, 2014

The end of chronic homelessness?

For a break away from my frustration about Ferguson, a note about my reinvention.  My networking resulted in an invitation to a stakeholder's meeting regarding homelessness in Norman, and my education continues.  I am learning so much about homelessness and about the effective (and no so effective) methods of fighting it.

Here in Norman, as in many communities, we have several different "shelter" agencies who all deal with aspects of the homeless population.  As one person put it this morning, they have effectively managed homelessness here, in that it is largely hidden from the population.  But that isn't solving the issue.  So, they formed the organization One Vision One Voice to combine forces and share information and resources.  Pretty cool stuff.

In addition, they are learning much about ways to address homelessness, and moving away from some of the older models.  That includes the idea of what was called "housing ready," where homeless people were given the possibility of getting housing if they completed some checkmarks.  Addicted people needed to prove their sobriety for ninety days, or the mentally ill needed to demonstrate some management of their symptoms.  This all worked for the short term homeless, but for the chronic and medically vulnerable population, this didn't work at all.  People living under a bridge have enough on their plate just living day to day to try to demonstrate some control of their demons.  It is basic Maslow's hierarchy of needs, if you think about it, but the model persisted because it had a logic to it.

But OVOV and The Homeless Alliance are following the new model of "housing first," where they put these chronic homeless people in housing of some sorts (with guidance and social workers helping them, of course).  The results are pretty startling.  In OKC, the retention rate was in the 90s after a year and a half, and only 2 of those were actually lost back to homelessness.

The other fascinating component here is that we may have been viewing the economics of fighting homelessness all wrong.  Most people agree that people should have housing, just as they think that people should have food.  But I can't tell you how many times I have heard the lament that we "just can't afford to feed or house everyone."

I am not sure about the economics of hunger (though I suspect it is quite similar) but the Homeless Alliance people have some great numbers on the cost of homelessness.  Turns out it is quite expensive to keep them on the streets.  I am not sure I wrote down all the numbers correctly, but here is one stat that I am sure of:  one individual chronically homeless individual in OKC cost the city's taxpayers $160,000 in one year.  He was arrested multiple times, or picked up for being in the wrong place or publicly intoxicated.  He was taken by ambulance several times to the emergency room, and spent time in the hospital for pneumonia.  All of that well before we look at any costs carried by the social workers or social organizations.

Turns out it is much cheaper to house people.  Here in Norman, they figure they can pay the annual rent and utilities for an individual for around $6,000.  Those who are housed are less likely to get arrested or harassed, and if you combine this with access to healthcare, the other costs plummet as well.

Several people made the point that economics should not be the only reason, but it is a compelling one for those who value fiscal conservatism.  If your value is to save money, then why wouldn't we jump on this effort of getting people into housing?  As I noted, I am guessing there is a similar economics to hunger and lack of healthcare--all the more reason to get people into Medicaid or get them fed.  Much cheaper to buy a meal than to pay for a night in the hospital, or for long-term chronic illness associated with poverty.

This fall, Norman's OVOV will undertake a comprehensive census of the homeless population.  Not just a count, but an assessment of where they are on the scale--temporary and unlikely to be homeless if they get their feet back under them to those who have enough mental illness that they would never be able to live completely unattended.  And many of those in that last category will simply die on the street.

I am hoping to get involved in this count and the entire effort to eradicate homelessness.  I am wondering about the response when people learn of this effort.  I fear that the "moral hazard" argument will overpower many who would otherwise want to help.

But we will see.

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