What the homeless need …

are homes.

I find Globe columnist on BC, Gary Mason, obnoxious much of the time, but in this two-column effort to come to grips with Vancouver and Victoria’s growing army of street people, he gets it right.

Time to try a home remedy for the homeless

… In a groundbreaking study 15 years ago, Prof. Culhane found that 80 per cent of the homeless in Philadelphia found themselves in that situation only for a short period of time, maybe a day or two.The next 10 per cent were what he called “episodic” users. They would spend a few weeks at a time in shelters before finding permanent housing. They were quite often young, quite often drug users.

The last 10 per cent was the group that Prof. Culhane became most interested in: the chronically homeless. Many were either mentally ill or physically disabled. These people lived in shelters or on the streets for years at a time.

In a study of the chronically homeless in New York in the 1990s, Prof. Culhane found that of the estimated 250,000 people who were homeless at some point in the city between 1990 and 1995, only 2,500 were chronically homeless. He estimated that in New York, at least $62-million was being spent annually just to shelter those 2,500 people.

Prof. Culhane conducted a study that looked at a group of chronically homeless in New York who had moved into supportive housing (where they were provided with various services to deal with health-care issues and other problems) and a group that continued to live in temporary shelters or on the streets.

He found the average cost to taxpayers for each of those not in supportive housing was about $40,000 a year, an amount mostly made up of hospital services.

The cost to provide someone with housing, meantime, was about $18,000 a year. That person still used hospital services on top of that, but not nearly as much as the person without housing. The total bill ended up being about the same as the person out on the street.

Which put the challenge to policy makers: Do you want to pay $40,000 and have someone on the street or pay $40,000 and have that person in housing?

“However, when you look at those two scenarios over time,” Prof. Culhane said in an interview, “taxpayers save money by having the chronically homeless in housing because the longer they’re there they use hospital services less and less. Our study only looked at two years. So those savings are going to go up and up.

“And don’t forget that $40,000 for those out on the street was pretty conservative to begin with. It didn’t include police booking costs or ambulance costs, which can be substantial. We just didn’t have access to that data. But in some states where that data is available, they’ve found that some homeless have racked up ambulance transport costs upward of $40,000 to $50,000 a year.”

New York is now at the forefront of providing permanent housing for the homeless.

B.C. did its own study, published in April of 2001, that found taxpayers saved about $12,000 a year for every homeless person moved into supportive housing.

Mason continues in his second column:

Big Apple’s homelessness model bears fruit

… In 1990, homelessness, not crime, was the No. 1 issue on the minds of most New Yorkers. The homeless were everywhere. That year, the census bureau estimated there were 12,000 people in homeless shelters on any given night and another 10,000 in visible street and park locations.

The bureau would later concede that the estimates were likely low by four or five thousand.

Six years later, you had a hard time even finding a homeless person in the Big Apple. The number of those in shelters was down to 4,000 a night, and the number on the street was estimated to be between 3,500 and 4,000. What happened?

In a word, housing.

According to Dennis Culhane, a professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, the city provided 21,000 units of permanent housing for the down and out.

“That was the difference,” said Prof. Culhane, one of the leading authorities on homelessness in the world. “Unlike the flophouses of yore, these places are run by not-for-profit organizations that compete for these contracts so they haven’t turned into our new slums.

“The organizations running the housing programs have a mission and a funding stream and the whole idea is to provide a quality of life. The units are maintained because there is a whole regime of discipline and connectedness.”

The city hasn’t stopped there.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced plans to get the remaining homeless — about 3,800, according to the city’s last count — off the streets and into housing. Many of those still out there are the hardest to get to, people who have established encampments under highways and train trestles. The city has found 73 such sites.

Two years ago, Mr. Bloomberg pledged to create 12,000 new units of supportive housing, which offer services such as mental-health counselling and substance-abuse treatment. He also announced plans to expand another program that helps people on the verge of losing their homes.

… It’s the chronically homeless who need to be the focus. By most estimates, they represent just 10 to 15 per cent of the overall homeless population but are a troubling social and economic burden. Many have severe psychological problems. Getting them into permanent housing would lessen that burden dramatically.”It’s a far more realistic, compassionate way to go,” Prof. Culhane said. “It makes no sense to continue rounding these people up off the streets, no sense throwing some guy in jail for urinating against a public building for the 10th time.”

We need to senior governments to step and address this growing problem now. This glaring social problem is the free market solution. Tax cuts cannot solve the poverty problem in Canada. It requires collective action through government.

One comment

  • There is considerable support for addressing homelessness through increasing the supply of social or non-profit housing. The oft-repeated phrase, “Homelessness is not just a housing problem, but it is always a housing problem” has become a standard refrain for advocates of this cause. Although acknowledging that income distribution is a significant issue related to homelessness, housing advocates tend to downplay its importance relative to the issue of housing supply. If the problem is a shortage in affordable housing, it appears logical that building affordable housing must be the first priority while other issues can and should be addressed as resources become available over time.

    However, there is an argument to suggest that addressing the supply of affordable housing is a necessary but not sufficient response to homelessness. One study that supports this argument was conducted in 1999 in Ontario which concluded that there appeared to be no correlation between vacancy rates in municipalities and the level of affordability problems faced by residents.

    Building on this foundation, I would suggest that the conceptualization of homelessness as inherently a ‘housing problem’ can limit our capacity to analyze and understand the broader structural factors that Hulchanski identifies as being integral to the housing problem:

    “Rather, we need to explicitly recognize that Canada’s housing problems are the result of our normal, day-to-day ways of going about our business. That is, the problem is an unintended consequence of our established laws, institutions, and social practices.”

    The implication is that shortcomings in our political, social and economic structures and processes produce results that create a disadvantage for some Canadians in securing adequate shelter. More generally, these shortcomings can also be seen as determinants of a wider range of disadvantage faced by members of certain groups in Canada. Therefore, the shortage of affordable housing is a symptom of a more fundamental structural problem that produces the social and economic inequality faced by Aboriginal people, people with mental and physical health issues, single mothers and other disadvantaged groups. Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has suggested that this inequality lies at the root of many social issues that are priorities for policy makers including homelessness:

    “Where there is social and economic inequality, people experience profound differences in access to political power, access to justice, and access to the goods and social conditions that support well-being more broadly: food, shelter, healthy environments and health care.”

    This highlights the necessity of integrating the response to homelessness within a broader agenda to address systemic inequality. While this agenda would be supportive of efforts to construct more affordable housing, the construction of affordable housing does not necessarily take precedence over other components of the agenda. Identifying one symptom, the supply of housing, as the primary issue that ‘must’ be addressed, risks putting policy makers on a path that will simply alleviate some symptoms of the fundamental problem in the short or medium term, while leaving the underlying structural problems unsolved. In fact, addressing what are portrayed as secondary issues by housing advocates (improved labour market outcomes, adequate income support programs, appropriate settlement services for immigrants, etc.), is essential to developing an effective response to homelessness that will be sustainable.

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