Safe at Home

City, County ponder giving homes to the homeless

Jun 3, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati officials are considering a major policy shift on helping homeless people that could result in many getting their own homes.

Based on the recommendations of an advisory group, City Council might reallocate some of its funding into a “Housing First” approach, which focuses on creating individual, temporary and permanent housing units for single homeless men and women. Under Housing First, agencies provide housing quickly, then assist with other services — like substance abuse treatment or job training — as needed.

Los Angeles was among the first cities to try the approach about 20 years ago. Other cities that use some form of Housing First include Denver, San Francisco and Toronto.

The proposal currently before local officials would, if approved, create hundreds of new transitional and permanent housing units during the next five years while rearranging the current emergency shelter system.

Advocates of the shift say it’s the best method for reducing the area’s overall homeless population. Critics, though, say the city still needs to add beds to its emergency shelters because independent home living isn’t right for everyone.

With the help of dozens of stakeholders — including advocates, caretakers, businesses and
homeless people — City Council is taking on this issue during a steep downturn in the economy that could swell the ranks of the city’s homeless population, which now is about 7,220 men, women and children.

Nearly 46 percent of the homeless are adult single males, and just more than 15 percent are adult single females. Many have drug, alcohol or mental illness problems. The recently announced Homeless to Homes plan outlines several ways these stakeholders think the city can best address the issue. (See the related story, "Ending Us vs. Them," here.)

“It’s not an oversimplification to say lack of affordable housing is one of the reasons for homelessness,” says Kevin Finn, executive director of the Continuum of Care.

The Continuum coordinates services and funding for all organizations that receive aid from the
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department to serve Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s homeless population. It managed the plan’s development.

“The plan is not taking a one-size-fits-all approach to providing services to homeless people,” Finn says. “Right now if you are an 18-year-old male or a 65-year-old-female, what you get is basically the same. Under the plan, services are targeted to people based on their needs.”

Homeless to Homes recommended the city add 191 transitional housing beds to the 265 units that currently exist or are under development. The plan also recommended the city more than double its stock of permanent supportive housing to 1,916 beds from the 916 current or under development houses.

“I think it’s the centerpiece of the whole (plan),” Finn says. “We specifically looked at housing. We are not looking to expand emergency shelters. We maintain the beds but restructure them in a way that would serve homeless people.”

The Housing First approach seems to have broad support, according to City Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls.

“There have been very few people who have said it’s not a good idea,” Qualls says.

The plan doesn’t suggest the city increase its current inventory of 422 emergency shelter beds but has recommended changing how those shelters serve people. That includes a 40-bed citywide walk-in shelter.

Also, there are recommendations for a 40-bed single women’s shelter, a 25-bed young adult shelter and expansion of the Mount Airy shelter to accommodate 98 men.

“There would be a separate shelter for 18- to 24-year-olds,” Finn says. “Hopefully we get them out (of the system) at a young age, and they never become the 65-year-old homeless person.”

But there are some concerns about the plan’s exclusive focus on housing. The vast majority of people who are homeless use emergency shelters for short-term help and services.

“I do think adding beds is important, as is permanent supportive housing,” says Christine Buchholz, associate director of the ReachOut program at Crossroads Community Church in Oakley. “(Shelters) provide services for people who may not be able to live independently.”

The church also is involved with developing the controversial CityLink “social services mall” project in the West End.

Even the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which supports Housing First models, agrees that it’s not appropriate for everyone.

“There is evidence that women and children who remain in a residential substance abuse treatment program will have improved employment and income outcomes and are less likely to relapse than women with shorter treatment stays,” the Alliance states on its Web site. “A transitional housing program that can serve as the residence for a structured substance abuse treatment program, therefore, can be expected to produce better outcomes for parents working to achieve sobriety.”

In Denver, the “Road Home” program works to provide stable housing and social services to combat chronic homelessness. It’s part of the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness adopted in 2005.

The city had nearly 4,700 homeless people when Road Home was adopted. Latest figures show it’s created 60 percent of 1,243 new housing units.

So far, Denver has seen an 11 percent drop in overall homelessness and a 36 percent drop in chronic homelessness.

Still, the initiative wasn’t cheap. The Denver program cost $7.7 million in the first year and $12.7 million annually afterward out of the $70 million the city and county spends for services to homeless people each year. About 90 percent of the cost is offset by savings from reducing overall homelessness, Denver officials estimate.

A team including the Continuum of Care will prioritize recommendations for the future.

Qualls says that no matter how the city proceeds it will be at least a five- to seven-year process.

“To the extent that this process really has reached out and involved the service providers and the funding community and everyone who is involved, it has increased the likelihood of success,” she says. “We want to provide services in a way that meets the needs of the clients and makes them productive members of the community.”