Want to end homelessness? Try giving the homeless a home

Portland had the dubious distinction in the days before Christmas of topping a list of U.S. cities “going above and beyond to push the most vulnerable Americans out of the public eye during the most compassionate time of the year.” The website U.S. Uncut singled out Maine’s largest city for destroying homeless encampments along Interstate 295.

Clearing out homeless camps happens throughout the country. A better approach is giving the homeless a home.

Utah put that simple idea to the test 10 years ago, and it has attracted significant media attention for it this year. As it turns out, the same experiment has been happening in Portland on a smaller scale and without the media fanfare.

Preble Street began housing the homeless a decade ago. Just like Utah, the organization has found that housing the homeless dramatically reduces chronic homelessness and saves money.

The difference in Utah is that the state invested in this model and, perhaps more important, stuck with it.

“If you want to end homelessness, you put people in housing,” Gordon Walker, director of the Utah Housing and Community Development Division, told The Washington Post in April. “This is relatively simple.”

A decade after Utah launched what became known as Housing First, its chronic homeless population has dropped by 91 percent. The chronically homeless — those without a home for a year or homeless at least three times in four years — are a small fraction of the state’s homeless population but account for half the costs.

The state saves $8,000 a year per homeless person by giving them a place to live, according to Walker. The chronically homeless are frequent emergency room visitors, they often spend time in jail, and they spend many nights in shelters.

Although Preble Street has seen similar success, it struggles to fund the three homeless housing initiatives it runs.

When Logan Place — which provides efficiency apartments for 30 chronically homeless people along with 24-hour, on-site staff support — opened a decade ago, shelter stays dropped 5 percent statewide, said Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director.

One year after it opened, a study of 24 residents found that their health care costs had dropped by 70 percent, police contacts fell 81 percent, and the residents received more mental health care services at two-thirds the cost. Seven years later, only two of the residents had become homeless again.

“This is the single best thing we’ve ever done,” Swann said.

The conventional approach to homelessness is to put programs in place that address the many reasons why people become homeless: substance abuse help, mental health counseling, job search support, rental vouchers. The intent is to help those who are homeless become ready for housing.

But not having a home is stressful. That stress makes it unlikely that homeless people can successfully address other problems, such as addiction and mental health issues. The experience of Logan Place residents shows that providing housing first allows residents to then focus on other problems in their lives.

A second set of efficiency apartments, this time for chronically homeless women, Florence House, opened five years later. Florence House and Logan Place rely on a mix of private donations and government agency funds. There’s no dedicated funding stream they can tap into since Maine hasn’t adopted Housing First as a statewide policy.

Logan Place receives funding from the city of Portland, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Florence House receives $840,000 annually from the state Department of Health and Human Services, but that funding only came at the insistence of former Gov. John Baldacci because of the lack of a dedicated funding stream for Housing First initiatives. Residents pay rent of 30 percent of their income, which includes government benefits.

Preble Street has plans to open a third set of apartments in 18 months, but Swann said he didn’t know where the money would come from to operate them. Preble Street also houses 40 formerly homeless in the community through a program supported by the Maine State Housing Authority.

Maine, like Utah, has a model for addressing homelessness that works. It should receive consistent financial support and expand to other parts of the state. It’s certainly better than chasing the homeless from makeshift shelters days before Christmas.

A previous version of this editorial said Florence House received only a one-time state investment. Florence House efficiency apartments do receive ongoing state support.