Ada County’s two major hospitals plan to put money and expertise into a Housing First program for Boise’s chronically homeless population, representatives of St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center and St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center said.
“We’re looking to be a partner in the project,” St. Alphonsus spokesman Josh Schlaich said. “Because really, when it comes down to it, we have a lot of data. We have a lot of baseline data for this population through our community health needs assessment and through our own emergency department and our other facilities. So what we’re looking to do is be intimately involved in the process with all of the different partners. We don’t just want to be a financial support. We want to be something bigger than that.”
St. Luke’s spokeswoman Theresa McLeod amplified that point.
“We recognize that it’s very important — and it’s also one of those terrific assets that we have — to lend expertise to broader community conversations such as this,” McLeod said.
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Last month, the city of Boise, Idaho Housing and Finance Association, Boise City-Ada County Housing Authority, CATCH (Ada County Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless) and Terry Reilly Health Services announced a partnership to provide apartments for around 40 of Boise’s chronically homeless people.
This type of program has been successful in other areas, such as the Salt Lake Valley, but those examples generally include major involvement from state governments. That seems unlikely in Idaho. Legislators here attended a series of meetings on homelessness over the past year, but they have not seriously considered a major role in trying to solve homelessness.
In addition to negotiations with the hospitals, Boise Mayor David Bieter asked Ada County commissioners to put $1 million into the projects, matching the city of Boise’s anticipated contribution. The county has a financial incentive, according to estimates by Vanessa Fry of Boise State University’s Public Policy Research Center. Fry predicted that putting 40 chronically homeless people in Housing First apartments would cost nearly $1.5 million less to operate per year than local governments and hospitals spend on medical treatment, legal services, ambulance rides and other responses to that population.
Ada County Commission Chairman Jim Tibbs said he’s intrigued, but skeptical.
“We’re always looking for savings. These experts are saying Housing First will save you money. And our response so far has been, ‘That’s great. Let’s see if it does. And then we can talk.’ But I’m concerned that, as a government entity, we’re already spending just a boatload of money on homelessness,” Tibbs said. “I’m not going to give somebody $1 million because Vanessa says this works. I want to see something else. And so, we’ll do our own checking.”
We don’t want to make this a Dynamis issue.
Commissioner Jim Tibbs on Ada County’s possible aid local Housing First initiative
The county’s and hospitals’ exact cost for responding to homelessness is tough to nail down. The county spends more than $15 million a year on emergency medical services, $10 million on medical expenses for patients who can’t pay their bills and $9 million on public defenders, according to a statement for commissioners’ chief of staff Larry Maneely.
In 2014, Schlaich said, St. Alphonsus absorbed $14.3 million in costs from treating around 6,000 people who couldn’t pay.
Of course, only a few of the people who rely on this county and hospital assistance are in the chronically homeless population targeted by the Housing First projects. But homeless people are especially costly, because they often suffer from addiction, mental health problems and physical ailments in addition to the health risks they run by living in unstable homes or on the street.
The county jail has around 100 homeless inmates at any given time, Maneely said, accounting for 10 percent to 12 percent of the jail’s $27 million annual budget.
The Housing First initiative is new, and many details, such as start-up and ongoing operations costs have yet to be determined, so the hospitals haven’t determined the amount of money they’ll contribute or their role in the project’s operations.
Tibbs said the county can’t contribute money this fiscal year, which runs through September, because the budget is set. He said he wants to research success stories in other areas before committing to participation in future years. He doesn’t want to put the county through another fiasco like its dalliance with Dynamis, a company the county paid $2 million to research a waste-to-energy plant that never materialized.
“We’re going to look into the program and see if there are some benefits,” he said. “Because, if there is a cost savings, then maybe it’s something worthy of a discussion.”