As Manatee and Sarasota counties launch an effort to count the region's homeless population this Monday and Tuesday, the community should be reminded of the challenge to reduce this stubborn dilemma by creating affordable housing and put people -- especially women and children, a growing homeless population -- in places other than vehicles, camps and other unsafe quarters. Community shelters such as the Salvation Army and churches can only hold so many people and those are only temporary solutions.
Manatee County should launch a concerted, community-wide campaign in support of a relatively new innovation in human service programs and social policy called Housing First.
Instead of providing emergency shelter, this alternative moves the homeless into independent housing -- off the streets into their own apartments or homes.
This concept is spreading around the country, steering society away from the old model of addressing other issues of homelessness first -- mental health, job loss, divorce, etc. -- in favor of stable housing. That priority would go a long way to solving those other issues as services that promote well-being and housing stability are delivered by the community.
For the chronic homeless, intensive and specialized services will be needed, maybe indefinitely, but that challenge should not discourage a community from a Housing First program.
As the National Alliance to End Homelessness notes, the vast majority of the homeless population fall into those circumstances due to a housing or personal crisis, and Housing First is the ideal solution with assistance to permanent housing without conditions. Those clients, the organization further found, "need surprisingly little support or assistance to achieve independence, saving the system considerable costs."
The model used by nonprofit agencies in a host of cities provide case management services to tenants, thereby creating stability to increase their chances for success.
Services are not coercive but rely on assertive engagement, and the rentals are not dependent on resident participation.
Housing First has been endorsed by the United State Interagency Council on Homelessness as a "best practice" for governments and service agencies to combat chronic homelessness.
The Denver Housing First Collaborative found startling results after studying more than 200 chronically homeless individuals: emergency room visits and costs dropped by 34 percent; hospital inpatient costs plunged by 66 percent; detox treatments fell by 82 percent; and incarceration days and cost decreased by 76 percent. Those costs are borne by society, mostly taxpayers and health insurance policy-holders.
Seventy-seven percent of those enrolled in the program remained there two years later, thus proving the value of Housing First.
Turning Points, which operates out of Bradenton's Bill Galvano One Stop Center, is an essential agency that provides so many services to the homeless, including rental assistance.
But this organization needs help from a broad community coalition that should unite behind a strong strategy to reduce homelessness. Housing First is an idea whose time has come.