July 17, 2008

Fenty Makes Plans to House the Homeless

by Kate Perkins, Community Blogger.

According to the Housing Choice Voucher waiting list, there are 9,348 households in Washington DC who qualify as homeless. Spend time walking the National Mall, Farragut Square, or M Street in Georgetown and I guarantee you'll encounter some of them.

April 2nd of this year Mayor Fenty announced a new policy initiative to target some of the most chronically homeless population. The "Housing First Fund" will seek to have 400 chronically homeless residents in permanent housing by October 1st of this year. Fenty claims Housing First is a "new approach" to serving the chronically homeless by securing housing for vulnerable individuals, then later providing comprehensive services to address root causes of the person's homelessness. Unlike previous programs that mandated sobriety or commitment to a program prior to permanent housing, Housing First doesn't require such promises or enrollment.

Made famous in New York City and Great Britain, the philosophy behind Housing First is to help homeless individuals move forward with their lives by eliminating the number one stress factor contributing to all their other problems—homelessness. Then, once stabilized in consistent housing, individuals are surrounded by personalized comprehensive support structures, such as health care services, counseling, and job training.

Although over 9,000 households are waiting on the district public housing and Housing Choice Voucher list, not all of these are listed as "chronic" cases. Chronically homeless are those who most frequent the shelter system, often with disabilities or mental illnesses. This group has been found to be some of the most difficult to service in existing homeless services. In Fenty's press release in April of 2008, his office cited that the District has approximately 1750 chronically homeless residents.

In order to determine who to give housing to first, the District has utilized a vulnerability index developed and utilized by Street to Home, an organization that has helped much of New York City's homeless find more permanent shelter and social service support. The vulnerability index looks at risk factors such as disease, substance abuse, and mental illness to determine who is most in need of permanent housing and would benefit best from accompanying social service attention.

Talking to individuals who work for DC Central Kitchen, I learned more about the vulnerability index and how they went about gathering data about homeless individuals. These surveys, taken in the middle of the night, have received some criticism for having to wake homeless individuals to answer personal questions. The homeless outreach workers I spoke with, however, explained that most of the skepticism came from a lack of published information from the government about the details of the project. Learning more about the survey system, homeless outreach workers familiar with the homeless population alongside trained volunteers (trained in how to wake someone, ask a personal question, and how to handle a refusal) approached homeless individuals to survey them for the Housing First initiative vulnerability index. Similar surveys have had positive results in cities like New Orleans, Baltimore, and Philadelphia for counting and understanding the needs of homeless residents.

In the District, housing for the first set of participating individuals will be scattered throughout the city and allow clients the opportunity to choose their own apartments, similar to the Section VIII housing choice voucher program. Nationally the Housing First Initiative has met a lot of success. The District began its own pilot program of Housing First this year with 20 homeless individuals in the Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle sections of the city.

Outreach workers to the city's poor and homeless question the aggressive deadlines approaching. In almost three months, Fenty has promised housing for an additional 400 vulnerable homeless individuals. Many question the Mayor's plan to provide accompanying supportive services to these residents in a timely manner since no plan has been formally announced. According to DHS Deputy Director Laura Zeilinger, every homeless resident placed in permanent supportive housing will receive a case manager. However, details for creating this system by October 1, 2008 remain unclear. The $19.2 Million plan will create 2,000 individual and 500 family housing units by 2014 by housing an additional 400 individuals each year.

Providing permanent residence for the homeless proves to be more cost effective in the long term considering the costs of homeless shelters, hospitals, jails, and psychiatric hospitals. The same organization in New York, Common Ground, found that they could provide a home and social services at $36/night as compared to $54/person/night for a shelter or $1,185/night for a hospital stay, $164/night in jail or $467/night in psychiatric institutions.

Cost may have been a large motivator for Mayor Fenty's decision. Alongside announcing permanent housing for 400 chronically homeless this year, he also announced the closing of the 300-bed Franklin Street night shelter by October 1st. Outreach workers for area homeless express concern that there will still not be enough space left to fill the needs of the homeless. Many caution Mayor Fenty to evaluate the need for the shelter before closing it in an extensive plan to consolidate existing shelter facilities. The District shelter system has a current capacity of about 1,000 per night.

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