Here’s a solution for homelessness that works

Ashley Snee Giovannettone
Ashley Snee Giovannettone

To truly help the homeless, consider housing first. It’s more than a slogan – it has a record of success.

Last week, Yolo County supervisors followed in the footsteps of cities, counties and states that have been using the “Housing First” approach for years. Under the plan to provide housing for some of the area’s chronically homeless, participants will be placed in local motels for as long as 120 days and assigned a case manager to provide intensive and ongoing services for a possible transition to long-term housing. The land where the 71 homeless individuals currently live has been purchased, and the new owners have asked that the camps be removed.

Supervisor Matt Rexroad said the board wants to get people off the street, as well as save taxpayers’ money. “Homeless policy needs to be more than just counting the number of socks and knit caps we give out,” he said. “It needs to be about changing lives and getting people to a better position in their lives. We can do that while saving money.”

The “Housing First” policy, which took root during the George W. Bush administration, has been employed around the country and has reduced chronic homelessness and lowered costs.

“President Bush inspired the perspective to look at it from a different lens – from managing, to solving homelessness,” said Philip Mangano, who served as executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness for seven years under Bush.

In the administration’s early days, Mangano’s team did extensive research and sought advice from people such as Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point,” to help see the problem from a new perspective.

The team quickly realized that despite good intentions and a lot of spending – mostly for haphazard short-term shelters and services – the homeless numbers only grew. Seventy cost studies were conducted, and each told the same story: Leaving the chronically homeless on the street was more expensive and less effective than providing permanent housing with necessary medical services.

While the cost of services for a chronically homeless person on the street ranges from $35,000 to $150,000 a year, Housing First with support services costs about $12,000 to $25,000 a year, Mangano said.

When people lack shelter and preventive care, they get sick more often. The emergency room becomes the first line of defense against even minor illness. With the average cost of an ER visit at $1,000, costs add up quickly.

“You don’t have to be Warren Buffet to see what is the better way to spend public money,” said Mangano. “Spend less money to solve the problem.”

Utah – a state where the governor is Republican and the Legislature has a Republican supermajority – has seen tremendous success with Housing First. Over the past nine years, since its 10-year plan to end homelessness began, chronic homelessness has dropped by 72 percent.

“We used to make them change their lives first, then talk about housing,” said Gordon Walker, director of Utah’s Housing and Community Development Department, who runs the program. “We now have a Housing First model. Once they have stability, they can work on issues they have.”

The state has built housing complexes, converted motels and offered individuals a one-bedroom space to call their own. Each newly housed resident must pay 30 percent of his or her income for rent. If they have no income, they pay nothing.

Walker said it costs the state roughly $20,000 in services per year for each chronically homeless person living on the street, while the cost is $8,000 to provide a home and case management with essential health services.

Clearly, the reasons and solutions for chronic homelessness are complicated and multi-layered. But advocates for Housing First make a compelling case that it often leads to self-sufficiency by meeting basic needs first.

Not everyone will become self-sufficient, but if housing our chronically homeless is cheaper for the taxpayers and it means people won’t be dying on our streets, it deserves a closer look.

Ashley Snee Giovannettone, former spokeswoman for President George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, serves on the board of Grace in Action, a homeless ministry in Davis.