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Moving the homeless out of shelters, into homes

A new approach is being heralded not only as more successful in fighting chronic homelessness, but more cost effective.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2007

New York

Two weeks ago, Moises and Jennifer Cedano expected to spend the next four to six months in a homeless shelter while they saved enough money for a deposit to rent an apartment.

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Today they watch two of their three children, Timothy and Francisco, jump with joy on a new bed in a new apartment.

They rented the place with help from the city's Department of Homeless Services, which decided that in the long run, it will be less expensive to help the family get stabilized in their own apartment than to have them cycle into the shelter system.

The Cedanos' experience is a reflection of a fundamental transformation in thinking about homelessness and the new model's success in combating what was once thought to be an intractable social problem.

New focus for urban homelessness

From New York to Dallas to Seattle, cities across the country are focusing not just on emergency shelter, but on getting the homeless homes. As a result, they're seeing reductions in the numbers of chronically homeless people on their streets and in their shelters. The movement, known as Housing First, has had the most success in moving the chronically homeless, mentally ill, and drug addicted into housing complexes with social services, like counseling. That's proved to be more effective and less expensive than leaving people on the streets or in shelters. Now, the concept is being expanded and adapted to help the growing number of potentially homeless families like the Cedanos, giving them short-term help in getting back on their feet and, where possible, long-term help with rent subsidies.

"There's a paradigm shift occurring," says Dennis Culhane, a homelessness expert at the University of Pennsylvania. "The successes ... achieved among chronically homeless adults have led people to understand that that same paradigm shift can apply to all homeless families."

Chronic homelessness first gained widespread attention in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A major cause of its increased frequency was the de-institutionalization movement designed to get the mentally ill out of institutions and into community settings. For a variety of reasons, including lack of funding, many people ended up homeless instead. During the 1990s, a second wave of homeless people appeared in shelters: families who couldn't afford the skyrocketing cost of housing. And the homeless population ticked steadily upward.

Initially, shelters focused on helping people with psychiatric needs and drug addictions first, and worried about getting them homes afterward. With families, too, social service workers focused on job training and other help before placing them in homes.

Management vs. prevention

Homeless experts began to question that approach when they realized they were managing the homeless problem, not solving it. That's when they pioneered the Housing First concept, targeting the toughest homeless cases, the mentally ill and drug addicts who cycled through homeless shelters, emergency rooms, detox centers, and psychiatric hospitals. Professor Culhane's studies in the 1990s found this population accounted for about 10 percent of the people in shelters – but used more than 50 percent of the resources Moving these people into apartments with rent subsidies and support services was not only more humane, but more cost effective.

"It was a less expensive response than having these people being out on the street or in long-term shelter," says Philip Mangano, executive director of the Unites States Interagency Council on Homelessness. "That's because this is a population that randomly ricochets into very expensive primary and behavioral health systems costing between $30,000 and $150,000 per person per year."

Providing supportive housing, on the other hand, costs between $13,000 and $25,000 a year, says Mr. Mangano.