Consider the number of homeless metro Detroiters, and ending homelessness seems impossible.
But also consider the results of a Salt Lake City program aimed at ending chronic homelessness. Housing First is just what it sounds like. Standard practice had long been for social service agencies to help a homeless person find a job, shake a drug addiction, or overcome other problems, and then transition to permanent housing. Housing First initiatives do the reverse: House the homeless individual and solving a substance abuse problem or finding long-term employment become more manageable.
Because Salt Lake City focused its resources on this kind of rapid rehousing — working first among homeless veterans — it has ended chronic homelessness among veterans and has made incredible strides toward ending chronic homelessness altogether.
Here in Michigan, some social service agencies have adopted the same kind of approach. Though Detroit’s challenges are different from Salt Lake’s, Southwest Solutions, for example, says that 94% of the 1,200 chronically homeless individuals it has helped obtain permanent housing have remained there for more than six months.
This is the kind of holistic approach to social services Gov. Rick Snyder encouraged in his fifth annual State of the State address, delivered Tuesday night in Lansing. Last year, the governor created a commission to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness; its recommendations prompted the governor to create the Michigan Interagency Council on Homelessness, which will update, monitor and work to implement the plan.
Analyses in Utah and other cities have shown that finding permanent housing for the homeless actually saves money. In Salt Lake City, agencies were spending about $20,000 per each chronically homeless person annually; in contrast, it costs about $8,000 to house that person.
Further, Utah officials found, chronic homeless individuals absorbed a greater share of resources. With those folks housed and employed, more funds were available to assist the temporarily homeless, those on the streets because of lost employment or some other disaster.
Though it makes sense financially and altruistically, this is the kind of program our conservative Legislature has historically opposed. During the last session, lawmakers were more concerned with creating new hoops for Michiganders who receive public benefits to jump through — passing bills to require drug testing or community service requirements for welfare recipients.
The social service agencies that serve metro Detroit’s homeless are staffed with tireless workers who have achieved much. State, local and federal support is essential.
In metro Detroit, there are other challenges, said the Rev. Faith Fowler of Cass Community Social Services: “We have a lot of housing stock that isn’t appropriate for human beings,” she said. Then, too, some landlords prefer not to rent to those who have been homeless.
But success in other cities should inspire Detroit and Michigan.