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'Permanent supportive housing' unlocks the door

No one chooses or wants to be homeless. Those who have been living on the streets or in places not meant for human habitation for long periods of time more than likely have a severe mental disability and/or substance abuse issues that are preventing any rational decision-making.

Some disorders are so deep, and discrimination against the homeless and those with disabilities is so rampant, that some people have literally given up hope of having housing. Others find themselves on the streets due to circumstances beyond their control.

In Erie County last year, approximately 500 people spent some time living on the streets and in parks, abandoned houses, cars and other places where no one would choose to live. With all of the resources of the private sector, combined with the resources of the federal, state, county and city governments, it amazes me that that we can't house 500 people.

The cynics and naysayers might wonder why we should spend taxpayer resources to help those with mental illness or addictions. A national best practice called Housing First, a permanent supportive housing model, has proven highly successful in ending homelessness. Unlike past models, people don't have to "earn" housing. They are given "housing first" with no restrictions and few rules. Studies have shown that once the stress of homelessness is relieved, people are more likely to treat their underlying conditions. Stable housing has proven to be the key to assisting those with HIV/AIDS, reducing recidivism rates for those released from prison and helping reduce cost of the frequent users of medical services.

The cynics and naysayers may go on to say they don't want their tax dollars to pay for some drug addict or alcoholic. After all, they are "bums." Studies completed in more than 50 communities around the country have shown in each case that providing permanent supportive housing to the chronically homeless saves tax dollars.

Most of the savings occur in Medicaid, when an illness is treated before it becomes so severe that it requires a lengthy hospital stay. A homeless person can be given supportive housing for as little as $50 per night.

There isn't a county in this state that doesn't want some relief from Medicaid costs. Why, then, aren't more permanent supportive housing units made available? Isn't it a little unrealistic to believe that someone can immediately cure his mental illness or addiction in order to "deserve" housing?

Smokers know how difficult it is to conquer an addiction. How many people could quickly give up coffee? That belief costs the taxpayers money.

Elected officials must also think long term. An initial investment this year may not show benefits for two or three years down the road but it saves money over time. We can end long-term homelessness, we can be humane and we can be cost-effective at the same time.


Dale Zuchlewski is executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York.