The Common Good
November 2011

Compassion That Works

by Toya Richards | November 2011

The Housing First approach to homelessness is more humane -- and cheaper -- than older models.

FOR MORE THAN 10 years, Carmen lived on the streets around Omaha, Nebraska. Suffering from cancer and partly cut off from her family, she was a stark example of the chronically homeless people who exist all across the United States.

But in October 2010, Carmen moved into a home, where she has successfully remained since. Hers is a story of what is happening in communities nationwide that are taking part in the 100,000 Homes campaign, whose goal is to permanently house 100,000 highly vulnerable, long-term homeless individuals and families by July 2013. To date, roughly 10,700 have been housed.

The campaign, coordinated by the anti-homelessness nonprofit Community Solutions, is trying to assist “those people who we know are mostly likely to die on the street,” says Jake Maguire, the organization’s communications director. Using a “vulnerability index,” communities survey their homeless populations. Factors they are looking for include whether a person has been homeless for at least six months and whether the person is suffering from a chronic physical condition, a mental illness, and an active substance abuse problem all at the same time. Maguire says that so far there have been more than 21,000 surveys done in 38 communities nationwide.

The 100,000 Homes campaign utilizes the Housing First model, pioneered by Dr. Sam Tsemberis, which asserts that stable housing is the primary need of the homeless; once that is established, other issues can be addressed. The alternative philosophy that before we can get the homeless off the street we have to help them get clean, or get a job, or get healthy doesn’t work, Maguire says. Under that model, “no one ever got housed.” In contrast, “housing is a very effective response to the crisis of homelessness.” In addition to being “humane and effective,” the approach is “much, much cheaper than allowing people to remain homeless.”

Linda Kaufman, a field organizer for the 100,000 Homes campaign and an Episcopal priest, concurs. She cites 11 different studies that show that moving from the street to permanent, supportive housing contributes to a drop of 60 percent in Medicaid costs. For example, Kaufman explains, if a doctor tells a person living on the street who has a bad cold to go home and rest, that person can easily end up in the hospital with pneumonia.

The Housing First model was endorsed by the federal government under the Bush administration, an endorsement continued in the Obama administration’s comprehensive strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness.

In the Omaha area, where Carmen received help, the 100,000 Homes campaign has been spearheaded by Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH), a coalition that describes its aims as uniting “the efforts of shelter, housing, supportive services, and faith-based organizations that serve homeless and near-homeless individuals and families.”

A local team surveyed 471 people in three counties last October and identified 176 as high-risk, says the group’s director, Erin Porterfield. Today, “we continue to add people to that list,” she says. So far, they have housed 78.

Porterfield says they found “the solution to homelessness is not rocket science; it’s housing immediately.” Then, after people have been housed, “we stick with them.” Framing homelessness as a public health issue and then implementing “long-lasting community change” is the key, according to Porterfield: “This has changed the way we do things.”

Toya Richards owns Richards Hill Communications in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a M.Div. student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. For more on the 100,000 Homes Campaign, visit www.100khomes.org.

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