PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island – Homelessness is a complex problem, and often includes a constellation of issues, including substance abuse, mental illness and unemployment.
But a new strategy has emerged in Providence: Ignore the other problems and provide housing first.
Longtime advocates for the homeless were way of the approach. When Don Boucher got involved with the Housing First project, which puts homeless people in affordable housing without preconditions, he was skeptical that it would succeed.
Nor did he ever expect that it could save thousands of dollars per person on the emergency services that are provided to the homeless.
“I complained that they were taking away my teeth,” said the program director of Housing First RI/Riverwood Mental Health Services.
Prior to the launch of the program in 2006, being sober and drug-free were preconditions for getting into housing, and Boucher was able to take punitive action against those who disobeyed the rules. But there was a very low success rate under the old system, with the overwhelming majority of tenants ending up back on the street.
“It is typically very difficult to get people to sort out the problems that accompany homelessness before they got into housing,” said Karen Jeffreys, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
Under the Housing First program, as long as tenants obey the rules that apply to tenants in normal housing, they can do what they want.
“With the old system if they broke the rules we could throw them out into the street in January, which didn’t solve anything,” Boucher said. “Now if I turn up and they’re drinking alcohol, they can say ‘go away, it’s my place and I can do what I want.”
Boucher was surprised by the results of the program. It has had a 90 percent success rate among the 130 c
hronically homeless people who have been given affordable housing as part of Housing First. As well as staying in their apartments and paying rent, around 20 percent have jobs.
Up to 60 percent of those given accommodation under the Housing First program are incapable of work due to mental and physical disabilities, but everyone pays rent, equivalent to a third of their income or benefits. And Boucher said they are all doing better.
“Their health is better, their hope is higher and their substance abuse is down,” he said. “It’s a great model and has been a great success wherever it’s been implemented.”
According to a study by Eric Hirsch of Providence College and Irene Glasser of Roger Williams University, the Housing First program in Rhode Island has led to a reduction in hospital emergency room visits, detoxification services, prison services and homeless shelter use. They said the average savings per person for the first year after they entered the program was nearly $8,000.
April Metts, 39 (above), who has been living in an apartment provided by Housing First for two and a half years said that it had transformed her life.
“I am so lucky to have had this opportunity,” she said. “I’ll do everything it takes to stay in this apartment.”
Across the city, Amos House, which runs a soup kitchen and provides temporary housing for the homeless, has a cooking course and carpentry program that provides the homeless with skills to help them find employment. Of the eight students who graduated from the last three-month carpentry class in September, four have so far found work.
Jim Webster has a group of students working on a house across the road from the Amos House, which will be used to house mothers and children who have been victims of domestic abuse.
“When they finish this course they could easily be hired as carpentry assistants,” he said. “Or they may be able to make a living out on their own fitting windows and doing other work.”
Phal Phann, 30, is scraping the kitchen walls ready for painting and says the course has been very useful for him.
“This is definitely going to help me a whole lot,” he said. “Once I’m done here this will help me look for a job.”
Photos by Brian Snyder
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