Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thinking outside the homeless box

Four years ago I read a story in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell that raised questions about how we deal with homelessness in America. The story was titled "Million-Dollar Murray" and begins with a discussion of an alcoholic homeless veteran in Reno -- Murray -- who was well known by police and local hospitals because they'd been dealing with him for years. At one point someone adds up the cost of the medical and substance-abuse care that taxpayers had shelled out for Murray and reached this conclusion: "It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray."

The article goes on to discuss programs that tried a different approach to addressing homelessness: putting the most chronically homeless people -- generally those who suffer from mental illness and/or substance-abuse issues -- into permanent housing. While it isn't a perfect program, it seems to work.

Yesterday, I heard a story on WBUR that said Boston's Pine Street Inn shut down one satellite unit and closed 100 beds in another. Homelessness in Boston during this time of economic difficulty is actually down. Why? Pine Street also runs more than 500 units of permanent housing and they are putting people into those units with an approach called Housing First. Instead of requiring that a person's substance-abuse or other issues be dealt with before they can be eligible for the housing, the opposite occurs. It turns out to be somewhat easier to deal with issues once the homelessness problem has been addressed.

Some people will be critical of the use of resources, but if an approach helps to solve a problem AND is less expensive, it seems like the way to go.

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