For chronically homeless, we must do what works

February 18, 2013 

I once knew a guy in Syracuse named Joe. Joe was the most arrested man in Onondaga County.

He was in his early 50s when I last saw him; he had then been arrested more than 400 times. Joe was a blackout drinker, a small guy.

Joe spent his first years in one of New York’s last orphanages and then a smattering of charity houses scattered across the farms and towns of Upstate New York, followed by trade school, reform school and a boys’ camp. To even an untrained eye, he was damaged goods – nobody but Joe knew exactly what toll he had paid as a small boy while in the company of so many strangers. Occasionally, he would mention “difficult” times but never elaborated.

Joe dealt with his burden through drink. I need not judge.

When he passed out, it was usually in front of a tavern, a corner market or, if he was in an especially feisty mood, in the middle of a downtown intersection. Whatever his choice, Joe would wake up either in the hospital or the detox detention unit.

At the time, I was running a Jail Ministry program out of a Catholic worker house in the city’s dilapidated and impoverished south side. I would often see Joe out and about doing his thing from our office windows, and I would also see Joe on the inside recovering from his latest alcohol-induced accident while awaiting adjudication of his transgression.

Occasionally, Joe would spend a night in our Christ room, a place of safety for the lost and weary found in every Catholic worker house. Once the Franciscans from the north side took Joe in and kept him sober for 94 days!

One Monday morning, I got a call from the Justice Center’s Compliance Office. It was from a sergeant with whom we regularly worked. He asked if I knew Joe. The sergeant asked if Joe ever accessed any external programming, whether it had worked, what went wrong and if I had any ideas.

Sadly, I didn’t have anything to offer that someone hadn’t already tried. Sarge told me that in the last year Joe had cost the sheriff’s office more than $65,000. If Joe was taken in unconscious, his first stop via ambulance was the ER. When he made it to the jail, he went straight to the infirmary. Each visit started off at $1,500 and then cost the jail $450 per day for medical treatment in a correctional setting.

Joe eventually lost both his feet to diabetes. From that point on whenever he was arrested, he would be held at the hospital as a county prisoner, supervised full-time by a deputy.

There is a program paradigm called Housing First that targets people like Joe and helps them, while also helping the community. It doesn’t yet exist in Syracuse or Thurston County. But where it does exist, it is provably effective.

It works by starting with shelter – not just a cot to sleep on, but a room with a door and a lock. That’s the easy part. It also starts with a total acceptance of that person’s humanity. That should also be easy, but it’s not.

Chronically homeless folks come with addictions, anger, mental illness and a pain so evident it hurts everyone who sees. Chronically homeless persons only account for 15 percent of all people without shelter, but they are the most visible and challenging to serve.

The Housing First approach works by surrounding and enveloping this person with services and care, and delivers it at the pace set by the person being served. As it turns out, this works really well: folks stabilize, drink less and access recuperative services more.

In Seattle, the Downtown Emergency Service Center operates a building called 1811 Eastlake, and it uses the Housing First model. In 2008, the average annual cost of supporting a person experiencing chronic homelessness outside the program was $86,000. In contrast, a person in the program had an associated cost of only $13,440.

Housing First is not just the decent thing to do, it’s also the fiscally and socially smart thing to do. Let’s get Housing First started in Thurston County.

If you’re in the field, want to learn more or disagree entirely but would like to be part of a Housing First and Rapid-Rehousing discussion, please join Phil Owen of SideWalk and me at a Shared Learning event of the Thurston County Asset Building Coalition from 10 a.m.-noon on March 7 at First United Methodist Church in Olympia.

Curt Andino is the Executive Director of South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity and is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He may be reached at curt.andino@spshabitat.org.

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