CEO Blog: From Emergency Room to Shelter

January 25, 2016

By Michael T. Hughes, CEO of A New Leaf

Two years ago this month Phoenix celebrated its end to Veteran chronic homelessness, one of the first cities in America to do so.

Now we are left with another challenge, perhaps more complex and resource-intensive: ending chronic homelessness for the larger population of Valley residents. There are about 29,000 homeless people in Arizona, an increase of 7 percent from the year before. In our city of immense wealth, they lack a place to call home, often sleeping in shelters. Thousands more shuttle from the street to jails or emergency rooms, always in crisis and lacking any support network on which to rely.

The plight of the chronically homeless is severe. They are unable to deal with underlying issues of mental illness, substance abuse, health issues or unemployment, and, as a consequence, must survive a dangerous life on the streets. Grandmothers and mothers. Uncles and fathers. Families cycling through an endless series of evictions – and, all too often, domestic violence.

These experiences have given us precious insight into what works. We now have a reliable toolkit of evidence-based solutions to end chronic homelessness, including Housing First, permanent supportive housing, affordable housing, and rapid re-housing.

Providing supportive housing to the Valley’s chronically homeless population may sound expensive, but doing nothing is even more so. A recent study by Columbia University found that supportive housing saved $15,000 per participant in reduced jail time and reduced costs for inpatient and crisis-health services. For example, in New York City, supportive housing has reduced the costs associated with the average chronically homeless person by 76 percent, from $38,351 spent over two years in shelter and jails to $9,143.

While outreach workers can try to bring social services and medical help out onto the streets, the most effective method for the homeless to get consistent access to services is to be placed in a permanent home. Once people feel safe and secure, they are motivated to address the underlying issues that made them homeless.

As residents of the Valley, we have an opportunity to create a more safe and prosperous community and a place of hope and dignity for all residents. Our success with Veteran homelessness should inspire us to do more to end the larger problem of chronic homelessness:

First, expand the county’s network of permanent supportive housing units and affordable housing to help people become independent.

Second, beef up the holistic services at emergency shelters and supportive housing locations to equip the chronically homeless with the skills and treatment they need, particularly targeted to industries of high job growth.

Third, ensure aftercare services are provided to help individuals and families move from shelters to permanent housing, gradually reducing in intensity as they become more independent.

Fourth, create more training, integration and shared next practices among the Valley’s nonprofits and the Maricopa Association of Governments in implementing the evidence-based Continuum of Care.

Ending chronic homelessness in our Valley of the Sun will require an ongoing investment from all sides, including the business sector, faith-based organizations, and others – especially people concerned about their neighbors – stepping up to help. While homelessness is a formidable challenge, it is also solvable. The time is right to make an investment for our future and end chronic homelessness right here at home.


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