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December 03, 2016
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Fighting homelessness with a model that works

On Monday, January 28, Sullivan County conducted its annual count of homeless people—both those with some kind of shelter and those without. This “census” data is compiled with the help of local government agencies and charitable organizations that provide various services to the homeless.

This count takes place nationally in cities, counties and rural areas on one day every year sometime during the last 10 days of January, usually one of the coldest periods of winter. The headcount is required for any regional or local body that applies for federal homeless assistance funds. This one-day snapshot—called a Point-in-Time (PIT) count—has its limitations. It cannot, for example, tell how many homeless people there are over the course of a year. However, when compared over time, a PIT count can help agencies assess whether homelessness is increasing or declining in their area.

The last few years show homelessness increasing in Sullivan County. In 2012, Sullivan County identified 465 adults and 202 children who were homeless, a total of 667 people. In 2011, the total was 520 homeless, and in 2010 it was 385. The 2013 census results will be released locally sometime in the weeks ahead.

In addition, the PIT count is further broken down into sub-categories to identify the chronically homeless, those with severe mental illness, chronic substance abusers, veterans, persons with HIV/AIDS, victims of domestic violence and, finally, unaccompanied children. Each jurisdiction also must do a Housing Inventory Count (HIC), which is a tally the total number of beds and housing units available for the homeless, including in emergency shelters, transitional housing, safe-haven housing and permanent supportive housing. All of these numbers are reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which in turn delivers an annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.

In the last dozen years, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, progress has been made by funneling a large amount of funds targeted for the homeless funds into housing programs. This strategy works. Between 2005 and 2007, the number of chronically homeless fell 30%, as mentally ill or otherwise disabled people received help to find permanent, affordable rental housing, were assigned case workers and received supportive services for their particular disabilities. From 2007 to 2009, despite the drop in personal income and a rise in poverty caused by the worst recession in decades, homelessness declined. From 2009 to 2012, under the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), which received a healthy dose of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the numbers of homeless held steady. However, that program expired last fall, and work still needs to be done. Approximately 40% of homeless people today remain unsheltered.

Finding homes for this vulnerable population is a smart investment. In the long run, taxpayers pay less to support housing efforts than is paid for the chronically homeless who continually drift in and out of hospitals, mental-health facilities, detox centers, courts, jails or shelters. The reason permanent housing works is that people who aren’t living on the streets or in temporary shelters, have more stable lives to deal with their mental issues, drug problems or family difficulties that often contribute to homelessness. In addition, these persons are not stigmatized by their homelessness.

Now, as governments tighten their budgets to address debt and deficit crises, the risk rises that recent successes in reducing chronic homelessness will be undone. Just how much government funding should be involved versus how much private funding is open for discussion, but when a reform idea works and is cost effective, the associated programs are worth keeping. We need to ensure that the needs of this most vulnerable population receive priority in order to avoid increased homelessness, suffering and cost.

As county legislator Cindy Kurpil Gieger wrote last week in a letter to The River Reporter, as Sullivan County addresses waste, fraud and abuse in its delivery of social services, it must continue to ensure that tax dollars provide for the neediest among us. We agree.