Research indicates permanent solutions to ending homelessness

<p><strong>Placing the homeless in permanent housing as opposed to temporary motel lodging has been proven to reduce rates of recidivism with drug and alcohol abuse. </strong>NAAZ MODAN / PHOTO EDITOR</p>

Placing the homeless in permanent housing as opposed to temporary motel lodging has been proven to reduce rates of recidivism with drug and alcohol abuse. NAAZ MODAN / PHOTO EDITOR

Yvette Molina said she sees the effects of global warming outside the door for her workplace, where homeless men and women are increasingly lining up to find respite from an unusually cold winter.

Molina, director of community services at Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen and part of a growing faction of local, state and national individuals, is looking for a more permanent solution to ending homelessness.

She said she believes a “Housing First” strategy may be the best way to get citizens off the streets.

“People who have been living on the streets for years had been able to turn around and get jobs,” she said.

"Housing First" involves giving homeless community members permanent housing as quickly as possible, then following up with social services, said Deborah Ellis, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.

The old approach was to provide a homeless person with emergency shelter, then transitional housing, she said.

But in recent years, local governments have found that people can address problems better when they are already in a home, Ellis said. Meanwhile, the government saves money because housed community members are less likely to go to the emergency room or get arrested.

“Some counties in New Jersey put people in motels,” she said. “It’s even more expensive for them than an apartment.”

Evidence exists that putting people in this sort of housing reduces the rate of recidivism with drug and alcohol abuse, she said.

A similar approach, termed “rapid re-housing,” is mainly designed for people who have become homeless very recently, she said, and places them in affordable housing with some subsidies.

Scientific studies have backed the efficacy of "Housing First." A 2003 study of 225 individuals found that those placed in "Housing First" programs, rather than the traditional care methods, spent less time homeless and less time in psychiatric hospitals.

According to a September 2014 article in The New Yorker, a "Housing First" program in Salt Lake City, Utah has proven financially advantageous.

“The average chronically homeless person used to cost Salt Lake City more than $20,000 a year. Putting someone into permanent housing costs the state just eight thousand dollars,” according to the article.

Ellis said these programs’ low cost have recommended them to both sides of the political spectrum, allowing policymakers to implement them in locales with many different views.

In New Jersey, Trenton and the Bergen County shelter in Hackensack have been using the "Housing First" program, Ellis said. She could not provide statistics on their cost, but said the response so far has been positive.

“People are very happy with these programs (because) they are humane,” she said. “They have the dignity of having their own place and control over their environment, even if it’s a modest place.”

Still, they face problems such as a lack of affordable housing and New Jersey’s high cost of living.

The state and federal government helps to fund some of the "Housing First" and rapid re-housing programs, said Annemarie Uebbing, the field office director of Community Planning and Development for the New Jersey Housing and Urban Development office.

The office creates contracts with various providers, along with administering more temporary funds such as the emergency shelter grant.

"Housing First" is a priority for people with additional considerations, such as disabilities or substance abuse issues. With rapid re-housing, the focus is preventing the trauma of homelessness and giving people additional social services, including job training.

She said the funding signaled a shift in views on how to deal with homelessness in general.

“In transitional housing, the discussion was, 'Do people need to learn how to live in housing from living outside? Do they have the behavior?'” she said.

Studies in Trenton and Camden have shown that people in stable housing are less likely to use emergency medical services and more likely to take medication, she said.

Uebbing cautioned that the programs would not work for every situation and needed to be considered from region to region. For example, in areas with high rent, housed individuals struggle to afford housing after their subsidies expire.

Many homelessness programs are administered on a county basis. Middlesex County has the fourth-highest incidence of homelessness in the state, behind Burlington, Essex and Union counties.

A total of 1,405 homeless persons resided in Middlesex County as of January 2014, according to a report from Monarch Housing Associates.

According to NJSpotlight, 23.6 percent of homeless individuals in the county in 2013 were unsheltered and 9.7 percent were chronically homeless.

Around 44 percent were individuals and the rest were families, according to NJSpotlight. 4.3 percent were veterans.

Aggravating the problem, according to an article from NJTV, is lack of shelter resources. The state has one shelter for every 194 homeless individuals.

Molina is concerned about her own kitchen resources, as more people have been showing up to take advantage of the 24-hour space.

She hopes that spaces will soon open up for rent before the organization is forced to turn people away.

“I hope there’s discussion to see what else we can do,” she said. “A couple of years ago someone froze to death.”

But New Brunswick does have some offerings for the needy beyond Elijah’s Promise, she said. Several churches open up a rotating shelter in the winter, and affordable housing initiatives help to prevent homelessness.

The soup kitchen also participates in the Heart Program, which services the town’s chronic homeless by providing meals, hygiene supplies and hot coffee. It also tries to link them to social services.

Most homeless individuals defy the conventional view — that the homeless live on the street and subsist on begging. Many of the needy people she sees are part of the working poor.

Sometimes they survive by couch surfing or downgrading their housing.

“Fifteen years ago, people were always searching for an apartment,” she said. “Now they are asking for a room to rent — a whole family, looking for a room.”

Elijah’s Promise is one of several organizations that helped create a "Housing First" program in New Brunswick. The first house, which is owned by the Reformed Church of Highland Park, has housed “eight or nine” individuals, she said.

It has worked well, she said. One man who had been homeless for years was able to recover in housing, open a bank account and begin a job (working as a counselor helping others get off the street).

“It has been a blessing … after a while, many people start to feel the isolation take over,” she said. “("Housing First") doesn’t have that stress at first, and once they start they are more and more motivated.”

Ellis said it is a “travesty” that New Jersey is so wealthy and yet still has homelessness.

“Many different things lead to homelessness, but the solution is really the same: a home,” she said.

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