We actually can solve homelessness. Projects from Utah to Washington, D.C. have shown that an approach called Housing First works. The Washington Post describes the idea as “a model so simple children could grasp it, so cost-effective fiscal hawks loved it, so socially progressive liberals praised it.” The model?
- Give chronically homeless people respect and a key to their own place.
- Give homeless people with alcohol or drug dependencies a place to call home, first — then offer other services. Don’t make drug treatment or twelve step programs or even sobriety a condition for housing. House people first, and then let them choose — or choose not to — get help for other problems.
- Give homeless people with psychological problems a place to call home, first — before enrolling them in counseling or therapy, before medicating them for mental illness. Let them have the dignity of a safe place to sleep and a locked door. Then let them choose whether to seek help for emotional problems — or not.
Giving people homes doesn’t totally eliminate homelessness, but it can come very close. Housing First is a statewide policy in conservative Utah because it works and because it saves money. Utah focuses on the chronically homeless, who are more likely to have intractable problems and to require a great deal of public resources, especially for medical care. The The Washington Post reports:
“In 2005, Utah had nearly 1,932 chronically homeless. By 2014, that number had dropped 72 percent to 539. Today, explained Gordon Walker, the director of the state Housing and Community Development Division, the state is ‘approaching a functional zero.’”
Utah, said Walker, was spending $20,000 per year on each chronically homeless person in the past. With Housing First, that dropped to $8,000 per year, generating millions in savings.
Medicine Hat, a smaller city in Alberta, Canada, started its Housing First program in 2009. Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston says he is a fiscal conservative. In his city, Housing First has met its goal of ending chronic homelessness, and of having a maximum of ten days in a shelter before someone gets their own place to live. The Calgary Herald quotes Clugston on Housing First:
“It makes financial sense. That’s how I had my epiphany and was converted. You can actually save money by giving somebody some dignity and giving them a place to live.”
Housing First works — putting a roof over people’s heads, and saving taxpayer dollars, too. Why isn’t this program in place in every single state and city?
Related story: In St. Paul: Building a homeless shelter and making more people homeless
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