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One city's bold approach to chronic homelessness

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 2004



COLUMBUS, OHIO

When Tom Bingham describes his new apartment, a slow smile creeps across his face.

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The place is small - 402 square feet - squeaky clean, and bare. A metal-frame twin bed sits in one corner, a large, worn purple chair in another. But it has one thing that Mr. Bingham, an older man, has never known: privacy.

"It's the first time I've been by myself," he says, relishing the words. "You come from a family of 10 kids, like I did, and you're never by yourself. In the shelter I was with 120 other guys.... Now, I'm getting used to peace and quiet."

Four months ago, Bingham wouldn't have seemed a likely candidate for having his own place and paying rent - even his current $50 a month. He'd lived in a shelter for nearly a year, on friends' couches for years before that, and fought alcoholism.

But Columbus, Ohio, is at the forefront of a trend gaining momentum in cities: housing the chronically homeless - not those who need just a nudge toward self-sufficiency, but those who, like Bingham, have been homeless for much of their lives, who may never have been independent, and who often struggle with addiction or mental illness.

Proponents say it's not only good for the toughest-to-serve homeless, but also makes economic sense. And as Columbus nears the end of a five-year plan to transform its strategy, the rest of the country is watching.

Columbus's story "may foretell the challenges that lie ahead for other cities," says Dennis Culhane, who teaches social-welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania. In its size, its age, and its underused housing resources, he explains, Columbus is more typical of what most of America faces than are higher-profile cities like New York and Chicago.

The Columbus strategy is based in part on Dr. Culhane's research, which shed new light on the makeup of the homeless population. Studying shelters in Philadelphia and New York City in the 1990s, Culhane found that although the long-term homeless made up only 10 percent of the homeless population over three years, they were using half of all shelter beds on any given night. And when Culhane compared the costs of supporting those with and without permanent housing, he discovered that it cost a city just $1,000 more annually per person to offer supportive housing - with services for mental health, addictions, employment, and other needs - than to care for the chronically homeless.

"The emergency shelter system wasn't created for them," Culhane says. Only with permanent shelter, he concluded, would the homeless population be drastically reduced.

Columbus was the first city to put the theory into action. In 1997, with the city's downtown and western neighborhoods - home to much of its homeless population - slated for redevelopment, Barbara Poppe, director of the Community Shelter Board, approached the mayor about a long-term plan to tackle homelessness. "Those people who've experienced long-term homelessness, they're at the end of the line," she says. "This program was about, 'Let's go to the end of the line and rent to them first.' "

A turning point for her, she recalls, was a meeting of providers concerned for the safety of women who traveled daily from night shelter to feeding place, to day shelter, to night shelter. "The solution they came up with was to do a drive for umbrellas and flashlights," she says. "I respected these women, but I thought, I never want to do the umbrella-and-flashlight approach."

Instead, she helped create "Rebuilding Lives," a plan for 800 new units of permanent supportive housing, adopted in 1999.

There have been struggles. Finding money has been rough: It's a patchwork of federal, state, and city funds, donations, and debt. A not-in-my-backyard mentality makes it hard to get some buildings approved. Even getting the homeless to accept housing is sometimes a struggle.

But for the most part, the program has been successful. More than 370 units have been built, and 165 more will be ready this year. And Columbus's approach is now part of a blueprint for cities fighting homelessness nationwide.

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