Housing the Homeless

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Last summer, two emergency shelters next to the Human Services Campus were shut down as dangerous and inhumane. Today, some 500 of the men and women who once slept on thin mats in shelters now have homes of their own, thanks to an approach called housing first. Instead of using housing as a carrot for the homeless, the goal is to get those people in housing as a first step to help end homeless. Amy Schwabenlender, vice president of community impact for the Valley of the Sun United Way, and Bruce Liggett, director of the Maricopa County Human Services Department, will tell us more about the housing-first approach.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of Arizona Giving and Leading looks at a way to help stop homelessness. It's called Housing First, and the goal is to get folks in housing as an initial step to end homelessness. Here to tell us more is Amy Schwabenlender, Vice President of Community Impact for the Valley of the Sun United Way, and Bruce Liggett, director of the Maricopa County Human Services Department.

Good to have you both here, thanks for joining us. Housing First, give me a better definition?

AMY SCHWABENLENDER: Housing First is a way of approaching those who experienced homelessness and meeting them where they are at, allowing them to move into housing and then stabilizing any condition that might be affecting them. The old model of shelter and housing was very much based around rules, and you had to be clean and sober and almost win the housing lottery in order to be housed. Housing First will take you as you are, will help you find an accessible apartment and will provide you any wrap-around programs you may need to help address behavioral health, physical health, employment, education, and all those other things that affect individuals other than not having a place to sleep at night.

TED: And as far as homelessness in Maricopa County, something like Housing First obviously addresses a major need.

BRUCE LIGGETT: It is a huge need and it's a really challenging issue for governments at all levels to address this. From the federal, to the state to the local level, we have all embraced Housing First, and that's the right solution with limited resources.

TED: What kind of resources were out there before Housing First? And what happened to make Housing First necessary?

BRUCE: Well I think that the federal government took some leadership role here in starting to identify that as the right solution, and then communities began recognizing that that is the way… that continuing to keep putting people in shelters every night is not the right answer. How can somebody get a job and move on and take care of your family if they don't have a place to stay? It's the fundamental part about housing that really leads to solutions for people.

TED: Rapid rehousing--what exactly is that?

AMY: That is a relatively new intervention. We really are taking direction from the federal government. The Housing and Urban Development Department had asked communities, besides people who are chronically homeless, the long-term have significant disabilities. People who are episodically or short-term homeless probably don't need those supports for as long. Rapid rehousing is a shorter term intervention. The average of six months of rental and utility assistance and the case management really helps people stay housed. It's those supportive services for individuals.

TED: I heard it being described as being like a car that needs a jump.

AMY: Yeah, a tenant said that to us actually. He created the analogy of how it felt to be experiencing homelessness and what moving into an apartment felt like.
TED: And again, getting these folks into apartments first is a different way at this, isn't it?

BRUCE: It's a completely different way, but it makes sense. Other models would move people into shelters for a period of time, and then into a transitional place for a period of time. Why not go right to the solution with the right supports wrapped around them to make sure they are successful?

TED: I was going to say, it sounds like the right solution, but were there not reasons to make sure people are sober and mental health is checked out before moving them into a communal area, like an apartment complex or housing?

BRUCE: Sure. It made sense because you will ultimately have to deal with those behaviors. But dealing with them while people are in and out of shelters is not the stable environment you need. Get them housing, get them stabilized, and then address the issues.

TED: We have some shots, I believe, of the housing that's being used for this Housing First initiative. Permanent supportive housing as well, what is that?

AMY: Permanent supportive housing is how we locally have started to talk about the idea of placing people in an apartment, wrapping services around them using a housing first philosophy. Housing First is an evidence-based best practice and requires a lot of fidelity. It's that harm reduction model. In permanent supportive housing we are applying that service philosophy. The permanency part means people have rental assistance as long as they need it, potentially the rest of their lives. The support is that supportive piece that can be really intense at first, and then drop off a little bit as people stabilize. As Bruce talked about, someone who has to work on sobriety may not be sober in a six month timeline, and they may need additional support here and there.

TED: I was going to say, what happens to those who are unable to move out? The permanent housing I guess is what it says, it's permanent for them; correct?

BRUCE: That is the plan. Provide them those supports so that they stay there and address any problems they may have.

TED: As far as shelters are concerned, the dynamic between this kind of program and operating shelters?

BRUCE: Well, shelters are still needed. We still need to be able to respond immediately to somebody's homelessness, but shelter capacity is limited in the Valley. In fact, for a while we had temporary overflow settings that were serving a lot of people. What happened recently with United Way leadership is all the funders came together and decided to dedicate their resources to improving some of the shelter, but really putting significant money into rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing. We've made 500 placements in the last year-and-a-half.

TED: My goodness. That sounds encouraging.

AMY: It is encouraging.

TED: Again, it would also seem as though the shelters might benefit from Housing First because the folks are coming and going, and you cannot figure out where they are or what they are doing, they are now hopefully at Housing First and getting taken care of, and the shelter now has openings and can take care of folks--better service served there.

AMY: Exactly. What we haven't had before in the community is a common assessment tool that acts like a triage tool in an emergency room. Instead of being first come first serve in shelters who is on a list for housing, there is an assessment tool used across the whole region. Doesn't matter what shelter provider you are. Everyone has the basis of a score to determine who needs a shelter bed, who can be diverted back to their family and who needs is scoring for rapid rehousing, permanent housing. We are really targeting our resources at intervention in a very different way and using data to inform our decisions.

BRUCE: It helps us to understand the homeless population and break them down into categories. There is a group of people who are short-term homeless for a couple weeks and then find a situation where their solution is solved for a while or permanently. But there are others who need more help, especially the chronically homeless people. Those tend to be people who are the greatest users of public service.

TED: I read that chronically homeless is 20% of the homeless population, but they use more than half of homeless resources.

BRUCE: Think about it in terms of first responders, emergency rooms, hospitals, crisis centers. Those are the people who use a lot of resources and if they were in Housing First they would be better directed.

TED: What does something like this cost?

AMY: It is about $12,000 per person per year to keep them housed. Over the last six years we have housed over 1200 people in this initiative, and we have a housing retention rate of about 90%, meaning 90% of the people who were chronically homeless are still living in the same apartment.

TED: Interesting. You mention $12,000; here and there sounds like a lot, but again, you are talking folks who are not using community services, police, fire, hospital.

AMY: Exactly. They are not rotating in and out of the systems of care that cost us as taxpayers money, government and non-profit dollars. Keeping someone in a state of homelessness can be on average $40,000 a year, and often it is significantly higher than that. It's more humane and cost effective to house folks.

TED: And with Housing First, as far as the county is concerned and the services are involved, does that dynamic change with Housing First?

BRUCE: Well it certainly has affected how we allocate resources and redirecting what we were spending towards this… again, the past 18 months, four-and-a-half million, probably. Talking about the Arizona Department of Housing, Department of Economic Security, City of Phoenix, Maricopa County and the United Way-- we put together a collaborative statement about Housing First being a priority.

TED: Well that collaboration sounds like a big deal. They used to have silos, and the silos are gone I imagine.

BRUCE: It is huge. I've been doing this kind of work for a long time, and there has been nothing like it, where we sit at the table regularly, allocates funds and all work together.

TED: It's really unique. And the results so far--positive?

AMY: 90% housing retention rate. Higher than the national average. Just over 12 months housed people in overflow shelters and not humane conditions at all. Now they have a home.

TED: Sounds encouraging. Alright, good to have you both here, we appreciate it.

Wednesday on Arizona Horizon, we'll have the results of a new poll on the presidential race in Arizona… and we'll hear about a local program on STEM education that's caught the eye of the White House. That's on the next Arizona Horizon.

That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.


Amy Schwabenlender
Bruce Liggett

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