I was on the top floor of a downtown highrise talking with a corporate executive about the strategic impact of placing homeless persons in apartments that are supported with physical and mental health care, what many call today “Housing First.”
“No longer will our homeless neighbors languish on the streets,” I explained to him. “Or for that matter, will even have to hunker down in a homeless shelter.”
“Where will they go?” he asked, intrigued.
“We put them in their own apartments,” I said, “ and then have case workers care for them.”
“Isn’t that expensive?” the executive asked.
“Studies show that it is actually cheaper to provide permanent housing and services, rather than keeping people homeless on the streets,” I said. “The cost of homelessness is high – from emergency room visits and paramedic runs to psychiatric support and temporary food and shelter.”
“So you mean that it is cheaper to pay a person’s rent and hire a case worker?”
“Exactly.” I said, thinking I had convinced a skeptical community leader.
But I had not closed the deal. He responded, “If the government is paying a homeless person’s rent for the rest of his life, then that is basically welfare housing. I don’t support welfare.”
Welfare Housing. I’m sure the image conjured up in his head was what former President Ronald Reagan described as “welfare queen”, the fictional mother on welfare driving a brand new Cadillac paid for by taxpayers.
Certainly, paid rent for life should not be the norm for every impoverished person entangled in poverty. If an average one bedroom apartment is $700 per month, the government could be paying $8,400 per year. In a span of 20 years that could be $168,000.
If you compare this cost of rent to hospital and paramedic runs alone, the price tag for “housing first” appears to be cheaper. But for those taxpaying Americans who demand “less government”, a free ride can never be justified.
This is not the view of a small extremist group. I’ve encountered many people in presentations with local neighborhood groups who have difficulty embracing the idea of free or subsidized rent.
“I’ve worked hard all my life, and have paid my rent most of my adult life,” they say. “Why should other people get a free ride?”
If “other people” meant “all impoverished people”, and if a “free ride” meant “free rent for life”, I would agree with them. Not everyone person on the streets needs “free rent for life” and not everyone needs intensive support services.
Sometimes “housing first” means simply helping a homeless family with initial rent payments in order to get them back on their feet. Other times, it is providing permanent housing while a person overcomes an addiction.
What is clear to me is that emphasizing permanent housing that is stable and supportive enough to help people overcome their personal barriers is the solution to ending homelessness.
For the most chronic homeless person who is usually struggling with a long-term disability, “housing first” is typically their only solution. They will never be able to work enough to pay rent, and will never be able to get off the streets without intensive help.
For them, providing “housing first” is a matter of life and death.
Photo credit: Images of Money