Governor Shumlin recently announced a new plan to end homelessness by 2020. Unfortunately, the plan seems to be getting little traction, perhaps because he introduced a similar, five year plan in 2013, and since then homelessness in Vermont has actually gone up. So I’ve been wondering whether other states are doing any better. Surprisingly, the state that seems to be having the most success in reducing chronic homelessness is Utah, where they’ve come up with a program called Housing First – based on the radically simple idea that the solution to homelessness is giving people a home. Rather than spend a lot of money helping people to get ready for permanent housing, Utah builds nice, new apartments and gives them to chronically homeless people at minimal rents. Having the stability of a home provides a strong incentive to deal with personal issues and find a job. Utah also supplements this housing with services. As a result, Utah has reduced its chronically homeless population by 72%. At first, most people assume it would be prohibitively expensive to simply put homeless people in nice apartments. It turns out, however, that the hidden costs incurred by our homeless neighbors like repeat visits to the emergency room are actually quite high. Colorado did a study and found that the average homeless person costs the state forty-three thousand dollars a year whereas it only cost seventeen thousand dollars a year to provide him or her with decent housing. Similarly, in Canada they did a controlled study of 2,000 homeless people with mental illness and found that the housing first approach saved $23,000 per person per year. Researchers have also found that placing an emphasis on housing improved the participants’ physical and mental health. Essentially the Housing First program focuses on prevention – which almost always proves to be cost effective. Prevention is also the most humane approach, especially considering that families with children make up about half of Vermont’s homeless population. And it turns out that the Housing First model is currently being tried in a limited way by a group called Pathways Vermont and is having some success both in helping chronically homeless people and in saving the State money. Ultimately the Housing First approach makes me optimistic that Vermont can, in fact, eliminate homelessness and that the critical first step is building enough houses so that every homeless person has a decent place to live.
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