Housing First homeless solution means Help First

Cooper Court, right outside Interfaith Sanctuary in Boise, put a new light on the homeless problem.
Cooper Court, right outside Interfaith Sanctuary in Boise, put a new light on the homeless problem. Statesman file

There is reason to be optimistic about a plan the city of Boise and other stakeholders have hammered out to deal with the complex and confounding mission of providing assistance to the homeless in our community.

Though it has been a long time coming — and no doubt the Cooper Court crisis contributed to a new urgency — Mayor Dave Bieter and representatives of a growing list of governmental and social service agencies should be commended for putting something in motion.

We have no intention of dousing the enthusiasm of the plans announced Tuesday by Bieter, housing specialists and caregivers, because a workable plan has been drawn up that will put roofs over the heads of some homeless this calendar year. But we, the community and all the stakeholders who are pulling together must realize that there can be no turning back. The goal of eradicating homelessness could take a generation and require long-term financial support from all corners of the community to maintain it.

Adopting what’s called a Housing First approach makes a lot of sense when you examine the alternatives: doing nothing or dealing with future Cooper Courts. Housing First is a strategy of matching the homeless population with homes, which creates an atmosphere in which willing clients can begin to address other issues contributing to their homelessness — be it physical or mental illness, addiction or any other problem.

This has worked in places such as Salt Lake City, and it can work here. We have roughly 100 chronically homeless (those homeless for a year) in Ada County. It is estimated that the community costs for their shelter, interaction with police and emergency medical services totals up to $53,000 per person — a whopping total of $5.3 million. We are paying this today, according to the results of a Bosie State University study.

With a Housing First approach, those overall expenditures can be reduced to $1.6 million.

The city and local housing agencies are making plans to house about 40 chronically homeless in stages beginning this year and continuing into 2017. Some federal funding options and a $1 million earmark from the city will result in the construction of a building that will create homes for about 25. The other 15 — individuals and families — will get homes from existing apartments the city and other housing agencies control.

The Housing First approach is just a start, but eventually it could accommodate all 100 of the potential clients, greatly reducing the number of homeless here.

As with any such bold plan, there are unknowns. Though the stakeholders have identified a path to get things going, additional and ongoing funding will be needed to maintain the program and expand it. But unknowns are no reason to pause now.

We understand some in the community might balk at this approach because there is no rent involved, no financial demands placed on occupants. There is no time limit on a client’s stay. But the community finds itself at a crossroads that comes with a financial reality: Housing First has proved to save communities money while providing housing for the homeless.

We can meet the need with our charitable-forward instincts and moral sense of responsibility — or continue to ignore the festering situation that provides no hope for our most vulnerable citizens.

We would hope the out-of-control aspects of some Housing First clients lives — once addressed — could lead to some moving on to jobs and greater independence. But the program works best when the expectations are tempered with the wisdom and compassion that Housing First really means Help First.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@ idahostatesman.com.