Doing it is hard, though, which is why we’re thrilled by the progress being made through the efforts of Valley of the Sun United Way, public and private funders and our many partners who provide direct services. In the Valley, non-profits, state, county and city leaders are collaborating like never before to put roofs over people’s heads.
We’re doing this through coordinated efforts, increased funding and housing first. In the old model, chronically homeless people — this means they’ve lived on the streets at least a year and have a disability — had to get sober or treat their mental illness before we’d talk about housing.
However, surviving on the streets makes finding and getting help difficult. The longer someone is homeless, the more likely they are to stay there. Housing first meets each person where they are, stabilizes them in an apartment and then wraps intensive services around them.
Putting a roof over a homeless person is a humane response that acknowledges emergency shelter does not end homelessness. Only a home does.
Housing first is also financially smarter. A 2008 Morrison Institute survey found that a chronically homeless person in metro Phoenix could easily run up emergency room, law-enforcement and other costs of $40,500 annually. In contrast, housing first costs $4,000 to $12,000 a year. That’s not all. The homeless population in Maricopa County constantly churns, as most people get back on their feet within a short time and there is a constant inflow of people who have recently become homeless. But about 20 percent are chronically homeless, and they use more than half of all community resources for the homeless. Moving them into apartments opens beds and services for those who need a temporary hand.
Today, we assess everyone who comes looking for help. Those with modest needs we refer to services that will help them quickly get back on their feet. Those who have struggled with homelessness the longest we move into the safety of their own place, with a kitchen, living room and a real bed, and then work on getting them back on their feet. Supportive services help keep them housed.
We are among the first in the nation to have a focused effort and new money for single adults in rapid rehousing, a program that helps with rent and supportive services for a short time. “It’s like a car that needs a jump. You get it running and it will be fine,” as one rapid rehousing resident described it.
Permanent supportive housing moves people into an apartment, often in a complex built or modified for this purpose, and surrounds them with services. It is intended for people whose disabilities make it unlikely they’ll return to fulltime work, though some find employment. All yearn to contribute. Many volunteer within their apartment communities, tidying up or serving as a mentor to new neighbors.
Since last August, when the men’s overflow shelter and east parking lot closed, nearly 400 people have been moved from overflow shelter into apartments. Without this, many of these individuals might be wandering central neighborhoods, sleeping in alleys and other unsafe places. They would show up in emergency rooms or attract police attention. Housing is a better and more humane use of public and private resources.
We haven’t yet ended chronic homelessness, but we’re making progress. There’s much more that we and our partners are doing. Changes are underway at the Human Services Campus in Phoenix that shift it to a hospital model. Hospitals take care of immediate needs, but you don’t stay there to lose weight after a heart attack, for instance. You go elsewhere for the appropriate services. The campus is moving toward operating the same way, taking care of emergency needs and connecting people with the services that lead to long-term stability.
We are collecting data that helps us better understand who is homeless in our community and why. We’re continually working toward better coordination among the organizations that provide services. Funding from our donors and partners – City of Phoenix, Maricopa County, Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care and the state Department of Housing – have paid for our most recent housing first efforts. The need, however, exceeds our current budget.
Still, we continue to move more people experiencing homelessness into their own homes. When we put a roof over the heads of those who have spent years on the streets, we free space and resources for those who need temporary help. And we take one more step toward ending homelessness. This is the solution to homelessness. A home.
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