I took a recent ride-along with a group of students and teachers from a local high school service program, and while under a bridge downtown, we met the two young men and one young woman. They were homeless, their only shelter a tarp attached to a couple of trees. Through tears and painful back-stories, the young lady told us they were all three biding their time, while on a waiting list for local shelters and relief programs.
Another man we came across moved to downtown Akron from Cleveland, because he heard that Akron has a number of resources for people facing homelessness that Cleveland doesn’t. He also was on a waiting list for a local shelter.
The one thing they, and hundreds of others facing their plight in the Akron area, have in common is their search for a permanent place to live. The local emergency shelter system is crucial to our community, but at the same time these shelters are usually at capacity. There also are a number of area homeless who choose not to avail themselves of shelter services for a host of reasons.
When you look at the landscape of programs for people facing homelessness, providers are investigating and implementing more and more permanent residency projects, or finding permanent homes for people before they get treatment, which already reveal promising results.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness cites a number of studies that make the case for permanent housing, like a “housing first” center in Seattle that treats people with severe alcohol problems and mental illness, which costs $2,449 less per person than those in a conventional shelter system. A Portland, Maine study points out a 57-percent reduction in the cost of mental health services to those who are placed in permanent supportive housing.
In Los Angeles, a study found that placing four people who were chronically homeless into permanent housing saved the city more than $80,000 per year.
Getting people off of the streets is a grave concern of many in the nonprofit world, but all too often, people who enjoy certain privileges like a warm bath at night and a place to sleep can easily look the other way and ignore this struggling part of our local population.
But there’s research indicating that easing homelessness has a cost benefit to an entire society. We pay more to have people living on the street, states the Alliance, which points out that people who are homeless spend an average of four days longer per hospital visit than those who have a place to live, adding an average of cost of more than $2,000 per stay.
When someone is out on the street, it makes it more difficult for him or her to receive counseling and treatment under a more conventional “treatment first” course of action. For many on the street, mental health and addictions are not properly treated. The Alliance points out a study in California that notes the average cost of treating substance abuse is $8,360 for those in treatment and almost $15,000 for those who are not being treated. So, not having a permanent place to live or access to treatment is more costly for everyone.
Traditionally, shelters and temporary assistance have been a significant part of the culture in treating this pressing social problem, waiting until people who are homeless deal with an array of attendant problems before giving them a roof over their heads.
But how easy is it for someone living under a bridge to kick a drug or alcohol habit, or treat looming mental illness? Sue Pierson, vice president of Info Line, posed this question at a recent community discussion on the issue. Pierson has her finger on the pulse of our local homeless problem.
“Working with the Continuum of Care under Housing and Urban Development, that department is undergoing a huge change,” said Pierson, at a recent community discussion about homelessness. “When before, HUD funded permanent housing and transitional housing, the agency trend is leaning toward ‘housing first.’ In many programs you have to be completely clean before you get a roof put over your head. If you’re living under a bridge and you don’t have a place to shower and you don’t have a phone, and maybe you’re dealing with mental illness, trying to get straight and clean doesn’t really work very well.”
Another case for permanent housing for the homeless is a closer look at the demographics of those who are homeless. A disputed but often-cited statistic asserts that the average age of a person who is homeless is 9 years old. A breakdown of the family unit can throw an entire family out on the street, and children who grow up with this instability are bound to repeat the mistakes of preceding generations.
An intriguing idea tied to permanent housing is the fact that people without homes in Akron walk by the many homes vacant from foreclosure. Is there a way for someone (or some organization) to purchase some of these foreclosed homes?
Could banks that own foreclosed homes cut a deal with these agencies to give residents without homes a chance at a new beginning?
The Akron area will likely always need shelters, but among the almost 1,000 area people facing homelessness on any given day, a more permanent solution could prove beneficial, even for people who don’t work directly with those that are homeless.