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Making dollars and sense of homelessness

When Mayor Byron W. Brown two years ago signed on to the Ten Year Plan developed by the Western New York Homeless Coalition to end the homelessness of those who are the most disabled, some observers thought, "what a naive idea." After all, they said, "haven't we tried just about everything without success?"

There's some truth to that pessimism. All across the country, no matter how noble our intentions to make a difference, things stayed the same or got worse. We learned that if good intentions, well-meaning programs and humanitarian gestures could end homelessness, it would have been history decades ago.

The good news is that there are new ideas and innovative initiatives that are working to reduce homelessness in cities across the country, from New York City with its 25 percent decrease in the past three years to San Francisco's 38 percent reduction in the same time period. Many other cities, including Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis, Duluth and others, have seen similar results.

What's working in those cities? Change begins with the development of a strategic action plan that is led and owned by the mayor and county executive and shaped by all of the stakeholders in the community. That group, called together by the city and county CEOs, is now understood to include hospital administrators, police officers, judges, jailers, librarians and the business community.

What do they have to do with homelessness? Every one of them is impacted by people who are disabled and living on the streets or languishing in our shelters. Hospital emergency rooms host homeless people every single day at an average cost of $1,000 a visit. Police and firefighters respond to 911 calls for homeless people on the streets. Librarians see homeless people from the moment the library opens to when it closes. The business community finds people in doorways or wandering the streets.

We've learned that all that random ricocheting through expensive health and law enforcement systems can be an economic drain on a community and demoralizing to its infrastructure. Cost studies have shown that one person in one year can cost as much as $150,000 in all of these systems. This has moved mayors and county executives to put aside turf issues and partisanship to create Ten Year Plans that incrementally reduce the costs and solve the problem.

The good news for those community-planning efforts, which include business, the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce, is that there are now innovative solutions that engage and house the most disabled. And they prove to be less costly than cycling and shuffling through expensive health and law enforcement systems.

Brown and County Executive Chris Collins recently agreed to revisit the Ten Year Plan created by advocates and providers to update and recalibrate the strategies. Brown and Collins are committed to business principles and practices in government including performance, accountability and results metrics. The citizens of Buffalo can be reassured that jurisdictional political will to reduce and end homelessness will be shaped by those practices.

Finally, economic development is central to the strategy to revitalize the city and county. The Ten Year Plan will contribute in three ways.

First, it will position the city and county to maximize the resources targeted to homelessness from the federal government. For seven years the president and Congress, in a nonpartisan partnership, have increased resources to record levels. Buffalo has the opportunity to sustain the record level of funding it received this year.

Second, the plan maximizes other federal resources by linking homeless individuals and families to entitlements, including Social Security benefits, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Many studies have demonstrated that those resources have a positive impact in local economics by bringing additional monies to the community.

Third, by ending the random ricocheting through investment in the more cost-effective intervention of housing with support services, the county and city stand to save money in social services, emergency rooms and police. In every one of 65 cost studies across the country, solving the problem with supported housing is less expensive than managing it.

No wonder Collins called for the recalibration of the Ten Year Plan informed by an expanded stakeholder involvement and economics, including Six Sigma. And Brown and Deputy Mayor Donna Brown see an opportunity to solve the social problem of extreme poverty as part of their larger anti-poverty initiative. And in doing so bring much-needed resources to Buffalo.

That city and county partnership makes sense for the community, common sense for homeless people, and dollars and sense for the taxpayer. That's good news for everyone -- housed and homeless alike -- in Buffalo and Erie County.

Philip F. Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, was appointed by President Bush in 2002 to reduce and end homelessness in the nation. To learn more about innovations that are working to reduce the numbers, visit

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