Free Press editorial on solving homelessness cites Southwest Counseling

October 17th, 2010
Homeless man on Vernor in southwest Detroit

Help city’s homeless achieve independence

Detroit Free Press EDITORIAL

The nation’s nearly 1 million homeless people have made headlines for 30 years, with three out of four of them living in central cities like Detroit. More than half of Detroit’s nearly 20,000 homeless people live outside shelters, including parks and vacant buildings.

Unfortunately, the resources, public and private, available to help have dried up at the very time they are most needed. Earlier this year, for example, Neighborhood Service Organization announced a cut, effective in the spring, of nearly $1 million in state community mental health funds. The cuts came on the heels of a study that found more than half of Detroit’s homeless people are at risk of dying on the streets.

The federal government aims to end homelessness within in 10 years — a lofty, and maybe unrealistic, goal. But to make even an earnest run at it, the government will need to spend much more than the current outlay of $2 billion a year. The nation spends that much in less than two weeks in Iraq.

Just as important, governments, and the private non-profits that deliver most of the direct services, must spend the money more effectively.

Permanent supportive housing offers the best long-term solution. National studies show that with proper assistance, nearly 90% of the homeless remain housed. Homeless people with significant problems need to get into stable housing quickly, and then the agencies dealing with mental health, substance abuse, job training, transportation and other issues must coordinate their services to keep clients independent.

To be sure, programs leading to permanent housing require a significant initial investment. Still, they are cheaper than ongoing incarceration, shelter, criminal justice, emergency room and other costs associated with chronic homelessness. “Shelter should be seen as a short-term solution,” said Joseph Tardella, executive director of Southwest Counseling Solutions and president of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit.

A model for permanent supportive housing is emerging in Detroit.

The former Michigan Bell Building on Oakman Boulevard will undergo a $50-million renovation, including 155 one-bedroom apartments for single homeless men and women, and a new headquarters for NSO and 200 staff members.

NSO is buying the 91-year-old Bell Building from Focus: HOPE, revitalizing the struggling near west-side neighborhood. NSO clients will be able to get education and job training nearby at Focus: HOPE.

Through Section 8 subsidies, tenants will pay rents on a sliding scale. On-site programs will include drug and gambling treatment and mental health counseling. Tenants will also have use of a library, chapel, gym, fitness center, computer room, art and music rooms and a walk-out roof garden. The Bell Building will contain a neighborhood health clinic run by Detroit Community Health Connection.

Private investors will help fund the project by purchasing state and federal tax credits. Government and private grants will also contribute, including a $1.25-million grant from Kresge Foundation and a $1-million grant from the McGregor Foundation. The project should break ground early next year and finish in 2012.

Eliminating homelessness will take a national commitment to moving people from shelters to self-sufficiency — and that means greater investments in permanent supportive housing programs. Three decades after homelessness pricked America’s conscience, it’s time to end this national disgrace.

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