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Housing First program has assisted nearly all of city’s chronically homeless

The goal, ending chronic homelessness, sounded like the stuff of fairy tales when it was announced a few years ago. It seemed more like do-gooders tilting at windmills than an actual goal that could plausibly be achieved.

But, surprise: It’s happening in Buffalo. Call it a Christmas present to us all.

Today, one of the nation’s poorest cities is within striking distance of meeting the standard. Not only that, but it is ahead of schedule. The program, which is part of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing First initiative, set a goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2017. Buffalo is almost there.

Only 25 chronically homeless people are still in need of permanent housing here. That’s down almost 95 percent from the 400 people who were in need just four years ago, said Dale Zuchlewski, the top administrator of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York.

The program provides publicly paid housing for the chronically homeless, and represents a reversal of the old “treatment first” policy that first placed the homeless into expensive programs, shelters and counseling in an effort to make them “housing-ready.” It sounded like a logical approach, but the opposite has turned out to be true. Studies have shown that placing homeless people into housing without preconditions such as sobriety helps those individuals to make those important changes more swiftly and at less expense.

The program targets the hard-core homeless. These are people who have been on the streets for at least a year or have been in and out of homelessness regularly over the past three years. They also have some kind of disability, such as mental health problems, a physical limitation, chronic illness, addiction or some combination of issues.

Beyond simply being the right thing to do, the program benefits virtually everyone. First and foremost, of course, homeless people get a place to call home, usually a one-bedroom or studio apartment. Landlords who make use of the program say they get a fair rent – one that allows them to improve the apartments when necessary – and in the federal government, a reliable payer. And taxpayers save money.

The benefits multiply. Once people have a home, they are radically less likely to be victims of crime. It is easier for them to regain their health and simply to be clean. With that, employment becomes possible and also self-sufficiency.

Landlord Glann Kaifas called the program a “game changer” for the homeless.

Chris Baxter understands that. The 22-year-old became homeless at age 18 because of what he identified as his own drug use and family issues. Now he has an apartment and a job. “It’s going good,” he said. He’s drug-free, setting goals and reconnecting with his family.

It turns out there is no pie in the sky here. It’s a square meal that is nourishing to all. The program directly and successfully attacks a pernicious social malady and shows how effective government and the private sector can be when they work together.

Indeed, it is likely that the program could not have succeeded without the involvement of both the public and private sectors. One has the money and the organization, the other the desire and the inventory to help. It’s a real American success story and one that Buffalo can be proud to have played a leading role.