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Boise’s Housing First program effective, not fair. Is that enough?

Wyatt Schroeder, executive director of CATCH (Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless), talks about his organization’s role in Boise’s new Housing First initiative, which Mayor Dave Bieter, second from left, announced on Tuesday.
Wyatt Schroeder, executive director of CATCH (Charitable Assistance to Community’s Homeless), talks about his organization’s role in Boise’s new Housing First initiative, which Mayor Dave Bieter, second from left, announced on Tuesday. kjones@idahostatesman.com

Imagine a single mother working two jobs to buy food and clothes for her kids, pay doctor bills and cover the rent.

Now imagine how she must feel when she finds out a homeless person who doesn’t work and has been in and out of the county jail a half-dozen times the past year can stay in a free apartment with few questions asked. She might be furious, and justifiably so, as are many people when they hear about Housing First.

It simply isn’t fair — to the single mother or the rest of taxpayers who will foot much of the bill for about 40 Housing First apartments that a collection of local government and nonprofit stakeholders plan to provide in or near Boise.

On the other hand, what we’re doing now costs taxpayers even more money. Boise State University’s Vanessa Fry estimates a chronically homeless person in Ada County costs the community $53,000 a year. The bulk of that money goes to jail stays and medical treatment, paid for by the county and local hospitals.

By comparison, Fry estimated the cost of a Housing First apartment at $16,000 a year. The people who deal with homelessness in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley offer a less extreme per-person estimate, though they say their decade-old Housing First approach saves the community $5 million a year.

But we’re responsible for our own well-being, right? Why should taxpayers cover for homeless people who, because of addiction, bad luck or bad decisions, end up in an emergency room unable to pay for the care that saves their lives so they run through the same cycle again?

If you think that’s wrong, though, you have to accept that hospitals will pass on the cost of that unpaid care to other patients like the struggling single mother or her children. Either that, or you believe doctors shouldn’t treat people who can’t pay. It’s hard to argue we shouldn’t pay to jail homeless people who break the law.

Ultimately, we have to decide whether Housing First savings and improved lives for society’s most vulnerable people justify the slight to fairness.

The partners behind Tuesday’s announcement say yes.

The single mother might disagree, even though the Housing First savings might someday trickle up to her in the form of free childcare, lower taxes or even a raise.

In Idaho, we pride ourselves on accountability and toughness. To some, this is yet another program that leads to more government dependency. They say we’re teaching people to be lazy and reckless because, if the consequences are a free house, why work?

Diana Lachiondo, who works in Mayor David Bieter’s office and is one of the major forces behind the initiative announced Tuesday, summed up the response of people who believe in Housing First.

“We’re a bootstraps state and bootstraps society,” Lachiondo said. “We have to get over ourselves and this notion that everyone’s going to ... have boots — or straps — and the ability to become a taxpaying middle-class American. Because it’s just not true. And then we pivot to, ‘OK, fine, if the moral case doesn’t move you, then the fiscal case should.’”

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