Back in the 1990s, Dennis Cuhlane made a memorable discovery about homeless people.
It takes a lot of dough, Cuhlane calculated, to keep them homeless.
A sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Cuhlane studied 10,000 chronically homeless people in New York City and found that they each used up more than $40,000 in services annually.
Although the chronically homeless make up just 20 percent of the overall population, Cuhlane discovered that they're loss-leaders when it comes to the services they consume. On a given night, Cuhlane and others tell me, as many as 200 shelter residents in the Hartford area fit this description.
It's taken awhile, but now the world is catching up to Cuhlane. If we are willing to spend some more upfront money on the homeless — renovating buildings, subsidizing permanent apartments — it's possible to solve what seems like an unsolvable problem.
We're starting to see the first glimmer of hope in the Hartford area, where shelters serve about 4,200 people annually. Agencies that have been working on this issue for years are seeing homeless people move from the streets into permanent housing.
What Cuhlane showed is that if you provide what is called "supportive housing," an apartment, with appropriate medical and mental health and counseling services, something significant happens.
"They reduced their use of services by close to 40 percent. They got hospitalized less often. If they were hospitalized, they didn't stay as long," said Cuhlane, who also supervises an annual count of the homeless in Connecticut. "They got arrested less frequently. If they did get arrested, they spent less time in jail."
They use up fewer tax dollars. They rejoin society, with jobs and homes in buildings that are taken care of.
"There is a tremendous amount of momentum going on right now," said Sharon Castelli, executive director of Chrysalis Center Inc. in Hartford, which helps move the homeless into permanent, independent housing.
"Ten years ago our goal was just to house people. It's anything but that now. It's to get people jobs. It's to become part of mainstream America. We have people who are actually doing that," Castelli told me. "It is more cost-effective to put people in supportive housing than emergency rooms."
Chrysalis, My Sisters' Place, Immaculate Conception Shelter and others have all been working to create housing for the homeless. Last month, the Hartford Commission to End Homelessness announced a goal to build 2,133 housing units over the next decade.
"The larger story, both within Connecticut and nationally, is there is an awareness that permanent supportive housing is a solution to chronic homelessness," said Diane Randall, director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, which works to end homelessness.
Next year, an international group that develops housing for the homeless, Common Ground, will begin renovating a building at 410 Asylum St. It plans to create 70 apartments, both affordable and market-rate, at the site overlooking Bushnell Park. Linked to this is another development by Common Ground, the nation's largest supportive housing developer, to create supportive housing apartments in a different neighborhood.
"There is now a plan on the table that didn't exist in the past. There is support for this notion of specially designed and supportive housing," said Rosanne Haggerty, a West Hartford native who founded Common Ground. "We would like to be a big contributor to seeing the city of Hartford meet its goals."
But to save money in the long run, we've got to be willing to create permanent homes throughout the region. State legislators now have an opportunity to take further advantage of the local momentum, combined with the arrival of Common Ground, to really make progress and create more permanent housing for the homeless.
"You have to make an investment to get a return on this investment," said Cuhlane, whose work is backed up by studies that replicate his findings.
If we refuse to spend more money on housing for the homeless, we'll still be dumping millions of dollars into shelters, emergency medical and mental health care and jails. That gets us nowhere and keeps the homeless on the street.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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