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Can we solve the homeless situation by … giving them a place to live?

It’s working in other cities, and the “housing only” approach is now being tried in Las Vegas.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

A prominent business person suggested to me that to solve the homeless problem Downtown, we should buy an empty subdivision in the suburbs and move everybody in. This person was joking, but there’s actually some validity to that idea.

No, I don’t think we should be repatriating people like some authoritarian state. But giving the chronically homeless a place to live is actually the right strategy. How do I know? Well, that’s what we’re already doing, and it’s working.

Let me explain: There are three main types of homelessness. The first is people who are evicted, who lose their home to foreclosure or who are fleeing a bad situation. They tend to be homeless for a short period of time because, well, it sucks to be homeless. They navigate the social service agencies and nonprofits and seek help from family and friends. The experience is so bracing that they often are homeless only that one time and for just a day or two.

That’s 80 percent of the homeless, according to Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who has compiled data and whose work on the subject is considered authoritative. Another 10 percent are “episodically homeless,” and the final 10 percent are chronically homeless.

This latter group is the one that needs the most attention. They suck up police resources and require emergency room care. They scare people and businesses from moving Downtown. My point here isn’t to demonize. As Culhane noted, many of the long-term homeless have been cut off from family and don’t have access to much-needed drug treatment or mental health services, or haven’t had success with either. No doubt, these problems are intensified in Las Vegas.

So, what’s the solution? Service providers once used a carrot approach: If you take your medication and get sober, you’ll get housing. As Culhane said, however, behavioral economics has shown that people are more likely to protect what they have than to strive for what they don’t have. In other words, if you say, “Here’s an apartment. Don’t destroy it and don’t bother the neighbors,” they’ll likely follow the rules. That’s a better approach than saying, “If you get sober, we’ll give you an apartment.”

It’s called “housing first.” But it’s not “housing only.” The approach is coupled with intensive services. A case manager works with the person to find mental health services, drug treatment and, hopefully, a job.

“There’s evidence emerging that if you get them into housing, the stable environment can act as a platform” for progress, said Mary Cunningham, a senior researcher for the Urban Institute.

New York City, Chicago, San Diego, Omaha and Salt Lake City have all seen significant reductions in chronic homelessness with this approach. And, yes, it’s working in Las Vegas, too.

Tyrone Thompson is the region’s point person on homelessness. We smartly treat homelessness as a regional issue, so even though Thompson is a county employee, his agency is funded by all the jurisdictions. With the housing-first approach, the number of chronically homeless declined from 2,211 to 1,579 from 2009 to 2011. (The total number of homeless was down some—and remember that many of those people are short-termers likely affected by the Great Recession.)

Thompson and his team scavenge everywhere—Department of Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority—for funds to get the chronically homeless under a roof. Cunningham said the cost of a housing-first approach coupled with intensive services is roughly equal to the massive amounts of police, jail and health care resources consumed by a larger population of the chronically homeless living on the streets.

I asked Thompson if we could see further reductions in chronic homelessness with more resources.

“Definitely,” he replied.

’Nuff said.

In a future column, I’ll introduce you to the chronically homeless and those who have left it behind.

Tags: Opinion
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