Task force: Big investments in homeless programs, facilities could save Greater Portland $3 million per year down the road

PORTLAND, Maine – A task force that studied homelessness in Portland over the past year is urging local stakeholders to summon the political will to fund the construction of 105 more specialized housing units for the homeless, according to its draft report.

By implementing the major steps recommended in the report, which include a renewed focus on an individualized case management system for homeless people, the task force argues it could save the community more than $3 million annually in emergency shelter and health care costs, among other things.

"There are proven examples that exist that show a less expensive way to serve people who are experiencing homelessness, but that will require upfront investment," said Suzanne McCormick, head of the United Way of Greater Portland and one of three task force chairmen. "What it comes down to is finding the political will to find ways to make those investments in the community."

The Portland City Council formed the task force in November 2011 and charged it with developing a strategy to curb homelessness in Maine’s largest city – a problem that has grown significantly in recent years while available funding has stagnated.

The number of people seeking shelter in Portland has increased by 20 percent over the past four years, reaching a current figure of approximately 440 people daily, according to the city.

"Approximately 75 family members and 230 adult men and women will seek emergency refuge at one of [the city’s] two shelters tonight," a city announcement issued Tuesday stated. "Due to increasing homelessness and the need for emergency shelter, for the past 20 months the city in partnership with [homeless service provider] Preble Street has had to expand capacity by utilizing the day shelter at Preble Street to accommodate rising numbers."

To push those statistics back down, the task force in its draft report is recommending steps to make it easier for homeless people to access case management services and, most significantly, expand the available housing for those struggling to maintain residences.

The task force’s report will be the subject of a public meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

One major step the group suggests is creating a centralized intake service, which could serve as a hub focused on connecting homeless people with the appropriate case management services, programs and housing facilities for their individual needs.

Another recommendation centers on the expansion of those case management services to be more broad in scope. McCormick, who is chairman of the task force alongside former City Councilor Dory Waxman and local business leader Jon Jennings, said much state and federal funding for case management programs is tied to specific status designations – such as programs for the mentally ill or for military veterans.

"You have to fit into a box with a certain designation or diagnosis – general case management is under-resourced," McCormick said. "People need help navigating through resources, and currently there’s not enough case management support to help them through that. Where it exists, it’s very specialized. We need a much more inclusive system."

The heaviest – and perhaps most difficult to implement – of the report’s findings is that Portland needs at least three more "housing first" facilities with 35 residential units in each one.

The "housing first" model, employed most recognizably in Portland by Preble Street in its Logan Place apartment building, is based on the belief that providing homeless people stable housing with few strings attached is often the first step toward permanently converting those people to productive members of society. Supporters of the "housing first" model argue that the more prevalent – but opposite – approach, in which facilities demand that residents give up substance abuse vices or seek counseling before being offered a stable room, deters too many homeless people from entry.

University of New England Associate Professor of Social Work Thomas McLaughlin, working with Preble Street and Shalom House Inc., unveiled a report last year which compared the cost to a community of a homeless person with disabilities when given stable housing versus the cost of that same person when on the street.

McLaughlin’s team followed nearly 100 greater Portland homeless individuals with disabilities – receipt by receipt – and compared their draw on public money before being provided stable housing and after. In 2009, he reported that, in their second year in stable housing, the homeless people tracked cost taxpayers a total of $622,386 less than in the year prior to entering the housing.

The cost avoidance came primarily in more efficient use of medical care and fewer run-ins with law enforcement, according to McLaughlin’s study, with year-to-year drops of roughly $264,000 and $188,000 in health care and mental health care costs, respectively. The Greater Portland homeless also consumed nearly $85,000 less in police, ambulance and jail resources, saving the government more than two-thirds of what those same individuals cost in law enforcement and rescue resources the year before entering the stable housing program.

Along those lines, the task force’s draft report predicts that implementing its recommendations will drive down the cost of homelessness on area emergency rooms by 63 percent, case management costs by 22 percent, and costs absorbed by other health care and mental health care facilities by 47 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

Those savings will add up to $5.1 million over a five-year period, the task force report claims, and an additional $2.2 million in annual savings will be felt by the local shelters and emergency service systems. That works out to more than $3 million per year, in total.

But to get that savings, the task force acknowledged, stakeholders in the community would need to invest an unspecified – but large – amount of money up front in construction and implementation costs.

McCormick said the task force, which included representatives from faith organizations, nonprofits and the business community, also brought together people from diverse backgrounds. Finding funding in the private sector to couple with public investments will be crucial to putting the task force’s strategy to work, she said.

"We combed through tons of data. We looked at models throughout New England. We held a community conversation and pulled all that information into our analyses and recommendations," McCormick said. "We want to be creative if we can. We know that ‘housing first’ does work, and if we know it works and it saves money in the long term, we just have to make these investments now.

"If there’s any community in America who should be able to figure this out, Portland, Maine, should be able to figure this out," she continued. "Portland is an incredible, smart, creative and resourceful community where people know each other and work together."