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Progress Watch

How to curb chronic homelessness? First, a home!

Permanent supportive housing, a movement to supply homeless people with housing first and deal with their other issues second, has made big strides in reducing homelessness this decade.

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Supportive housing is working, says Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who has conducted extensive research on homelessness and housing-assistance policy.

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"The fact that homelessness has stayed solid and didn't increase in such a deep recession is a major accomplishment," he says. "Treatment programs and shelters help a lot of people, but many chronically homeless individuals would die on the street before getting into housing under the normal homeless system."

For Barry Boudreau of Quincy, Mass., homelessness came at the worst possible time. After serving for two years in the Vietnam War, he returned in 1970 to his home in Somerville, Mass., where he married and opened his own bakery. After a few years, he was forced out of business by larger conglomerates, he says. That same year, he divorced from his wife with whom he'd had three children. Mr. Boudreau says he started drinking and quickly ended up without a home.

"Veterans, myself included, can be pigheaded and sometimes proud to a fault," he says. "I didn't want to be a burden on or inconvenience my children, so I ended up at a veterans shelter in Boston."

One day in February 2003, he accompanied a friend on the friend's appointment to obtain permanent housing at a shelter in Quincy. Boudreau was asked if he'd ever consider moving into the permanent housing shelter as well. About a week later, Boudreau had a new home at Father Bill's & MainSpring, an organization devoted to ending homelessness through permanent and temporary supportive housing.

"That was huge, to be able to walk in and up the stairs to my own apartment, sit down, and shut the door," Boudreau says. "You don't realize how meaningful that is. I'm grateful every day."

Sometimes the "homes" are just single rooms, but as permanent residences, they can change the equation for homelessness, says Sullivan of HUD. "The goal is to get people to stabilize themselves and confront the root cause of their homelessness as opposed to making housing conditional in whatever way."

Various studies have also shown that providing homeless people with permanent housing saves money:

•In Seattle, the housing-first-style 1811 Eastlake program saw savings of nearly $30,000 per tenant per year compared with conventional shelters, says an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

•In Portland, Maine, a study of rural homelessness found a 57 percent reduction in the cost of mental-health services when providing permanent supportive housing as opposed to serving homeless people.

•A study of nine major cities by the Lewin Group, a health-care consulting firm, found that supportive housing was consistently the cheapest option when compared with such services as jails, prisons, shelters, and hospitals. The cities included were Atlanta; Boston; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles; New York; Phoenix; San Francisco; and Seattle.

For Boudreau, the new approach saved his life, he says. "There is such a stigma attached to homeless shelters," he says. "But Father Bill's isn't a shelter; it's a home. And I don't know what would have happened to me if they weren't there. To think back what they've done for my life, I just sit here and say, 'Thank God.' "

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