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“Crazy Idea” is Effective in Indianapolis

May 8, 2015

All over the country, cities, and some states, are claiming great strides in eliminating chronic homelessness as noted in a recent and very popular article in the Washington Post &  Huffington Post. In Utah, the state cites a 91% reduction in the number of chronically homeless. In fact, officials claim that they now know each chronically homeless person by name. The City of Phoenix has reported that they have completely eliminated veteran homelessness, and New Orleans has also made the same claim. Washington D.C. and New York are dramatically reducing the numbers of chronically homeless. Here in Indianapolis, we have also reduced numbers substantially.

Why are we making so much progress recently when chronic homelessness has been so difficult to solve for so long? The answer is actually very simple. We are providing them with housing. Sam Tsemberis, the founder and CEO of Pathways to Housing in Washington D.C. is often credited with the idea of “Housing First.” He figured that a chronically homeless person who struggles with mental illness and/or substance abuse will do better if the first thing we do is to get him or her housed  – not in a shelter or temporary housing, but in the security of a permanent place to live. He also figured that the public and private cost of supporting that homeless person would go down. He did his research, his model was implemented in the places that I mention above (and others), and it turns out that he was right on both accounts.

The Housing First model is cost effective because homeless persons who are permanently housed use expensive hospital emergency services much less often than those on the street, and they also place fewer demands on the criminal justice system and the social services system. The amount saved on those services far outweighs the cost of the housing. Don’t take my word for it. Check out the research and you will find a number of studies about its cost effectiveness. The Housing First model is also just plain effective. Studies show that 85% stay housed (a percentage that is consistent with the experience of my agency – Partners In Housing), and many go on to earn income and progress toward self-sufficiency. So, as the Housing First model becomes more well known, it’s gaining fans from fiscal conservatives to social liberals.

Simple ideas aren’t always the best ideas, but, in this case, this simple idea of providing housing as the first step in recovery seems like one of the best to come along in the complicated world of chronic homelessness. Those of us who work in this field know it works. It’s only shortcoming in Indianapolis is that we need a bit more investment in it. The return on that investment is something we will all feel good about. And, Indianapolis will join the list of cities that have eliminated chronic homelessness.

Written By

Phil Smith


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