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Fed up

How Orlando's homeless-service agencies have failed to solve the problem

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Tsemberis then set out to create a “completely barrier-free” method of getting people off the streets and into housing. His model is predicated upon several assumptions: that housing is a human right, not a privilege to be earned by proving one’s sobriety or mental stability; that people respond better to treatment and training when they have the stability of a home; and that it is actually cheaper to house the chronically homeless – and rehabilitate them – than to let them languish on the streets (or counting on them to complete a series of preliminary programs with numerous opportunities to fail or drop out). In a 2006 New Yorker article titled “Million-Dollar Murray,” for instance, author Malcolm Gladwell found that one alcoholic transient in Reno, Nev., was costing the city a million dollars per year in medical expenses. Tellingly, that did not even include the costs incurred from corrections or the courts, two systems that are also notoriously burdened by the homeless.

The Housing First model is usually manifested in “permanent supportive housing” units where people can live, usually with the condition that they meet with case managers or counselors – who are sometimes stationed on the ground floor of the apartment building – on a regular basis. The results have been encouraging. With the aid of generous donors and a proactive governor, Denver’s program was able to reduce its chronically homeless population by 64 percent between 2005 and 2009. Similarly, in San Francisco, which has heavily invested in supportive housing, 7,225 homeless adults have been placed in permanent housing between 2004 and 2011; the city’s homeless policy director Dariush Kayhan says that 95 percent of those individuals have stayed off the streets, owing to the “supportive” adjective in the equation. “The day you sign the lease is the first day you begin working with them on the issues that led to your homelessness,” Kayhan says.

Despite the purported fiscal and practical advantages of Housing First, Orlando’s major homeless-assistance providers have remained largely focused on temporary services such as food, clothing and emergency shelter, as well as various transitional programs. Statistics supplied to the Weekly from providers generally speak little of outcomes: The Coalition handed out 302,000 meals last year, and the Christian Service Center gave away 27,000 articles of clothing, though neither organization can say how many left their transitional housing facilities to move into permanent homes. And though the need for permanent supportive housing is the most dire need of all – Cathy Jackson, executive director of the Homeless Services Network, estimates that the region is 1,115 beds short – both the Coalition’s and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission’s near-term construction plans are for creating more transitional housing.

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