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Another View -- Charlie Sherman: In Manchester, we can house the homeless and save money

October 15. 2015 9:18PM

In Manchester, finding permanent housing for the homeless has been a persistent problem. The median rent in the city has risen 8.6 percent in the last decade to reach $1,054 a month, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. Even when charitable organizations help the homeless obtain basic skills, getting and keeping an apartment is a financial struggle. But at New Horizons, we have found a program — from the federal government, believe it or not — that has worked.

When I heard the federal government had a possible solution in the fight to end homelessness, I was skeptical. However, after studying the new program, called “Housing First,” I came to the realization that maybe it was worth a try.

Housing First is for the chronically homeless. Many of these individuals have mental health or substance abuse issues, or both. I understand those whose initial reaction is: “Why would you provide these people with their own place; isn’t that just throwing government funds away?” It is an understandable reaction, but the evidence shows it is unfounded.

One of the states that gave this initiative a shot was Utah. In 2005, there were 2,000 chronically homeless in the Beehive State. Rather than ignoring the growing problem, leaders there decided to try the Housing First model. It worked.

Housing First has not only significantly reduced the number of chronically homeless people, but it has saved money to boot.

First, it is quite costly to take care of the homeless. Shelters, emergency room visits, ambulance calls, police, the courts — none of that is cheap. In Colorado, a study found that the average homeless person cost the state $43,000 a year. Housing that person would cost $17,000, for a savings of $26,000 per homeless person per year. In New Hampshire, the cost to house a homeless individual is closer to $12,000.

Politically speaking, no one wants to put a line item in their budget of several hundred thousand dollars, but a cost-benefit analysis shows that over time funding homes for the homeless produces a dramatic savings in addition to moving many chronically homeless people off the streets and into a safer environment.

The Housing First model includes supportive services and connections to community based programs people need to keep their housing and avoid returning to homelessness. Participation in services is actively encouraged and service providers do what they can to help the person achieve goals related to housing stability.

In communities that have made a commitment to Housing First, they have found high retention rate for participants and fewer chronically homeless on the streets. That is our experience as well.

New Horizons for New Hampshire began participating in Housing First on a small scale last year. We have received $15,000 through the city of Manchester’s CIP funding and have successfully housed three chronically homeless people. The first client we placed has now moved on from the Housing First unit and into his own apartment where he pays his own rent. Although that might not sound like much, these are three individuals who are off the street and have a place to call their own. If they continue to take advantage of the support services that we offer and remain permanently housed, the city will have reduced the number of chronically homeless people and saved money while doing so.

Housing in Manchester remains expensive, but for the chronically homeless this program provides crucial access to the first rung on the housing ladder. Now if our public officials can address the cost of rental housing in the city, many lower-income residents could lift themselves up without the need for government help.

Charlie Sherman is executive director of New Horizons for New Hampshire. He will share his insights about this program and Manchester’s housing problems at the New Hampshire Housing Summit today at the Institute of Politics.

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