PSH Point-Counter Point

Permanent Supportive Housing is a controversial issue that has strong arguments both for and against this type of programming. Presented below are two different sides of the argument. We would like to hear from the readers how they feel about the topic, so please write to us at PO Box 93061, Cleveland, OH 44101 or e-mail us at homelessgrapevine@neoch.org

Commentary by Brian Davis

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless absolutely supports the idea of serving people with housing before offering shelter. NEOCH was founded on the principle of housing over shelters. We started the Legal Assistance Program and the Housing Cleveland website to help keep people out of the shelters and prevent homelessness. The problem with the local housing first initiative is in the details.

NEOCH helps to coordinate the outreach teams who interact with those hundred of people who are resistant to shelters. Most of these individuals do not feel that they fit anywhere in the system, but are always looking for a place to live. We agree that it is a good concept that we place people into housing before forcing them into treatment or shelter or employment training.

Our issue is that the current rules of the housing first initiative to this point is extremely limited in scope. The Cleveland housing first program along with many other programs already in existence is limited to single adults with a disability. Other communities such as Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota have rejected those guidelines and have actually made progress. The most successful aspect of Hennepin County is providing an attorney to everyone facing eviction to prevent homelessness. Cuyahoga County has never done much with preventing homelessness especially by providing attorneys at housing court.

With all due respect, the statistics used in housing first presentations are bogus. There is a lot of anger by providers in Columbus about this claim of a 42% decrease when so many families are struggling. I travel a great deal to Columbus and can say that the population resistant to shelter living outside is similar if not greater than Cleveland’s. So, while they have championed their success nationally the reality on the ground does not match the rhetoric.

We find that cities diverting people from shelters and then never counting those individuals in order to “reduce” homelessness. Cleveland is one of the last cities to provide a place for everyone who shows up at the door every night. We do not want to move away from this long established policy, and so we are weary of this housing first effort if it does not guarantee a bed for everyone.

We do not agree to the segmenting of the population with labels because it pits one group against another. Right now disabled homeless who have been homeless a long time are favored, while families who are recently homeless are left behind. Those who sleep in a motel, on a couch or who just got out of jail and live on the streets do not even count as homeless people.

The problem with the statistics about a reduction in public resources is that those funds will never go into housing. There is no savings the homeless shelters by these long term homeless. All the possible savings are with institutions that are overwhelmed and will redirect funds to other poor people. Would MetroHealth or the county jail see any savings because we diverted 500 long-term homeless into housing? No way.

Finally our last issue with housing first is that the community that is supposed to benefit is never consulted about these plans. No homeless person was ever asked is these millions of dollars spent on these properties are worth it or would thousands of housing vouchers be a better deal for the community. If know that homelessness is a solvable problem, but with two generations who do not know of a time without large homeless populations, it is a tough case to make. A few cities have made progress, but until Cleveland starts listening to the experts who wait in these long housing lines every day to find stability we are doomed to massive taxpayer funds on shelter.

Commentary by Gerald Skoch Executive Director West Side Catholic Center

The West Side Catholic Center is proud to serve homeless individuals and families. We recently served a young couple living under a bridge. Faced with a lack of employment, a landlord who defaulted on his mortgage, and a criminal history, this couple became homeless. With no home their chances of employment are slim.

There are ways, however, for couples like this to restore their lives and become self-sufficient. The public should be aware of the tremendous, progressive, and successful efforts to get families out from under bridges, off the streets and out of shelters into homes of their own. These efforts need to be highlighted and supported.

How many of us are aware of the Housing First initiative? The solution to homelessness is so painfully obvious that it has been overlooked for years. The first step out of homelessness is housing; not treatment, not employment, not rehabilitation, but housing. All the other steps to self-sufficiency rest on the platform called “home”. Housing First recognizes this essential truth and works to place homeless persons in a home of their own as a first step in addressing other barriers to self-sufficiency they face.

These programs are successful and have been so for years. Housing First initiatives and similar models programs helped to reduce family homelessness in Columbus by 40% from 1995 to 2004. In four years, Hennepin County, Minnesota reduced the family homeless population by 43%. In New York, family homelessness dropped 19% over three years.

Fortunately, Cleveland is not far behind. There has been, for years, wide spread efforts to end homelessness in our own County. Our own Housing First initiative has provided over 225 permanent supportive housing units for chronically homeless persons in the last several years and hundreds more are in the process. These housing solutions provide a way out for long-term residents of shelters and the streets.

This housing is modest, attractive, safe, humane, and dignified. There is another benefit to such human treatment of our fellow human beings; this housing is less expensive than the alternatives. A study of a similar program in Portland, Oregon demonstrated that the costs of shelter, outpatient health care, emergency rooms, jails, and police services averaged $42,000 of public resources each year. Once housed the total public resource burden, including the housing provided, dropped to $26,000 per year. They were able to provide a humane dignified housing solution, reduce the population living on the streets and save $16,000 per year, per person, in the process.

The same efforts are under way here in Cleveland; the same cost savings are possible and the agencies involved are a model of collaboration. Our Housing First initiative is collaboration among: The Enterprise Foundation, Sisters of Charity Foundation, Mental Health Services, Emerald Development & Economic Network, Famicos Foundation, Cleveland Housing Network, the Office of Homeless Services, and others.

Here at West side Catholic Center we have served the materially poor in our community for over 30 years and have always recognized the need for housing. Our recently launched “Zacchaeus Housing Solutions” project, begun in partnership with the Community West Foundation is today providing homes for 118 previously homeless men, women and children. We witnessed what our comrades were able to accomplish with the Housing First initiative and joined in the battle. We urge others to do so as well.

It is a biblical truth that the poor will be with us always, but homelessness is a solvable problem. Other cities have made remarkable progress in doing just that and Cleveland needs to broaden its efforts so no one needs to live under a bridge again.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #86 in November 2008 Cleveland Ohio.