June 1st, 2012

Plan emphasizes housing for long-term homeless adults

Several Rhode Island agencies and advocates for the homeless drafted a plan that would emphasize long-term housing over temporary shelters.

In 2010, 95 percent of long-term homeless adults in Rhode Island were in shelters, with five percent in housing. Under the plan – 98 percent would be in housing and two percent in shelters, by 2016.

The Rhode Island Housing Resources Commission, Rhode Island Interagency Council on Homelessness, and Rhode Island Housing worked with housing and homeless advocates to put together the $130 million plan, which seeks to eliminate both chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years; and homelessness for families, children and youth in 10 years, in part by creating nearly 900 new units of affordable housing – a mix of new construction and renovated existing properties – structured on the “Housing First” model. The plan also emphasizes rapid re-housing and shelter diversion programs.

Eric Hirsch, Ph.D., a Providence College professor of sociology, was on the Steering Committee for the plan and says the ultimate goal is to end homelessness of all kinds.

“But over the shorter-term, the idea is to move people who are living in the shelter system into permanent housing,” he says. “People have been in the shelter system for, in some cases, eight years, 10 years.”

“There’s no good reason to have been living in shelters that were designed purely for emergency use,” Hirsch says.

Jim Ryczek, executive director of the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless, says shelters were never intended to be places where people live. “They first started cropping up in the mid-to-late-80s as a way to stabilize people and give them a safe place to be until they could get into other housing. But they’ve now become places where especially the chronic and long-term population has lived for literally years.”

Ryczek says the experience can be traumatic. “It’s a no-brainer to think that when people are displaced from their home they go through some level of trauma in having to adjust to a different situation,” he says. “If it’s a night to night shelter, they just aren’t great places to be no matter how well-run they are. It’s traumatic to have to live with different people and leave at 8 o’clock and have to figure out what to do until 6 o’clock that night.”

With a permanent home, people are better-equipped and able to get the mental health or addiction services they need, advocates say.

“Certainly if you have an apartment, a home, it’s going be far easier to deal with any mental health issues you have or certainly any alcohol or drug issue,” Hirsch says. “Trying to deal with an addiction while living on the street is a hopeless enterprise.”

With the Housing First model, there are few formal requirements of the program other than meeting the terms of the lease, Hirsch says. “You can do what anyone else does in an apartment and you would not be forced out of the program unless it’s a violation of your lease.

“This has been very effective because very high-demand programs with a lot of rules and regulations – homeless people were not responding well to those and in many cases were leaving their apartments.

“But with Housing First, we see retention rates of over 90 percent within a year after moving in,” he adds.

Having a permanent address can lead to quicker access to services. “One of the things (Housing First participants) have said was, the big thing for them was immediate access to a psychiatrist or behavioral health professional who can prescribe various kinds of medication for them,” Hirsch says. “Many people are simply self-medicating on the street; they have no access to a psychiatrist. I think that’s really crucial. Just the fact that they can get the medications they need for anxiety or depression or schizophrenia is really effective so people don’t have to buy street drugs to try to self-medicate.”

Ryczek says at a glance, it may seem cheaper to house individuals in shelters, rather than permanent housing. But studies have shown that when you factor in costs resulting from increased hospital stays, incarcerations, ambulance runs or emergency room visits, it’s cheaper to house individuals in permanent housing, rather than shelters. “Then you factor in that people are stabilized and more humanized in their living situation and able to reconnect with their families and communities, and it seems like a no-brainer,” Ryczek says.

When Hirsch evaluated the Housing First program, “We looked at the cost for the year before people moved into housing and the same costs for the year after, and we found that even after paying for the case manager and the housing subsidy we were still saving $8,000 per person per year,” by housing the individuals.

“We suggest that it literally will save money to solve this problem,” he says.

Hirsch notes advocates are looking at diverse funding sources for this initiative along with any available state funding.

By Pamela Berard

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