Everybody not familiar with efforts to resolve chronic homelessness, myself included, is shocked to learn what it costs to do anything effective. Part of what I have been learning this week is that it just does. Like it or lump it. Or we can do nothing, which would make us the crazy ones.
Earlier this week we talked about The Cottages at Hickory Crossing — 50 400-square-foot dwellings being built at the east end of downtown by charities with an aim toward taking about 8 percent of the city’s long-term or permanent homeless population off the streets.
The ongoing cost of maintaining those 50 people in 50 little two-room cottages will be about $688,000 per year or about $13,760 per person, according to John Greenan, whose Central Dallas Community Development Corp. will act as landlord. That cost, which is supposed to be covered by private donations, grants and state funding, will be in “support services,” including several kinds of monitoring and physical and mental health care.
But I had been hearing a lot lately about “housing first,” the policy of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which is aimed at just getting people indoors first, getting them into some kind of cheap housing and then figuring out the services end of it later. Why spend all that money on services if you could spend it getting a roof over people’s heads first? It made sense to me. You’re homeless because you don’t have a home, right?
Wrong, as it turns out. Maybe even quite wrong. For that part of it, I visited The Bridge, the city’s homeless center at the east end of downtown, and had a long talk and tour with President and CEO Jay Dunn.
Dunn pointed out to me that The Bridge, which provides services every year to about 9,000 people, deals with two distinct subsets of homelessness: the temporarily homeless and the semi-permanently or chronically homeless.
“The vast majority of people who become homeless are no longer homeless three weeks after,” Dunn told me. “They’re in and out.”
The Bridge, mainly a day shelter with emergency overnight beds for 150 people and transitional housing for 100 people, understandably doesn’t want to expend scarce resources providing overnight housing for that majority of the homeless population who, left to their own devices, will figure things out and find new homes for themselves.
But the other subset, the chronically homeless, are chronic for a reason, or in many cases a bunch of reasons — mental illness, addiction or anything else that contributes to a severe deficit of basic life skills. Those people are not going to figure it out on their own.
As we walked and talked, Dunn showed me The Bridge’s intake area, which looks like the tidy lobby of a small airport. People were lined up waiting to pass through a metal detector before going out into an outdoor courtyard area.
“We do a quick scan for weapons, primarily,” Dunn said. “If there are illegal weapons we will collect them and turn them over to the Dallas Police Department. If people voluntarily present them, they can go ahead and participate, but if they try to hide them, then it escalates.”
They also scan for drugs. “We can’t have people shooting up heroin,” Dunn said.
Clients who already have badges showing that they are known commodities go through the metal detector and on about their ways. Newcomers go to one of three small interview rooms along one wall of the corridor.
“There, we are identifying urgent and emergent issues so we can deal with those immediately. Do they need a referral for an off-site (overnight) shelter? What shelter is going to be a good fit for a first attempt? Do they need to see a doctor immediately? Is someone in the midst of a crisis that we need to deal with right away?”
So immediately, the moment people walk into the entry area, Bridge staff is already beginning to sort them into categories.
“The broader population comes and goes, and we help direct traffic in a very broad sense, helping them connect with off-site shelters at night like Union Gospel Mission, Austin Street Shelter. During the day we provide meals, saying to them, ‘Hey, we have a doctor here or we’re screening for TB today if you need to do that.’”
The chronically homeless — substantially more mentally ill than the broad homeless population, substantially more drug-addicted and much longer on the street — are way tougher to deal with, and that is where The Bridge tries harder.
“The long-term population, which we identify primarily through these sorts of engagements, they’re the group we ask to stay here with us. We really wrap around them and give them intense services. We have as a goal in working with those individuals getting them housing.”
But how? Finding the housing itself is tough because the supply is way below demand, but that part may even be less difficult than getting the chronically homeless to a point where they can live in housing, any housing. How do you live in a cottage or an apartment if you’re still addicted, if you’re under the sway of a pimp or if you just don’t remember the difference between living indoors and camping?
How do you pay for it?
Dunn toured me through a warren of small offices set up for the Veteran’s Administration, Legal Aid and several healthcare providers. In each office someone is working to resolve one or another of the barriers that keep the chronically homeless on the street, from income to mental health.
Then he and Bridge community affairs officer Sam Merten took me upstairs to a dormitory of tiny alcoves inhabited by people Merten described as “the cream of the cream, the ones who have risen to the top.” These are people to whom the Bridge has provided all of its services in order to render them capable of leaving, going out into the world and re-entering mainstream society at however modest a level.
There is something heart-biting at first about seeing people sitting alone in corners of these tiny enclosures — surrounded by mounds of clothing and cherished keepsakes carried and kept somehow through years of hell — and then hearing them described as having “risen to the top.”
But it’s all relative. If it were my loved one sitting there, dried out after years of addiction, straightened out after awful madness, indoors and kempt, showered, fed, then I guess I might weep with joy. After where they have been, it’s a miracle they can be this close to deliverance.
But look at the work it takes. Think of all the trained people who sit in those little offices patiently pulling these hopeless souls up onto the beaches of hope, only to see many of them slide back under.
And even after some of them make it, leave and move into their own homes, it isn’t over. The Bridge monitors its graduates in the field, because it wants them to succeed and doesn’t want to see them back at The Bridge.
Dunn told me new regulations governing federal housing vouchers allow recipients to pay higher rents in more expensive areas, so that now The Bridge has graduates living in some of the suburbs like Frisco. So The Bridge sends field workers to Frisco to make sure everybody out there is still on the rails.
They're proud of their record at the Bridge. In the most recent fiscal year the Bridge put 364 chronically long-term homeless into permanent housing and found income for 240. The most recent homeless census by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance found 615 chronically homeless in the city center.
The contention of the people involved in this work is that even with all of the attendant services, the cost of dealing with the chronically homeless and getting them off the streets is still less than a third the annual cost of having them on the streets and in and out of jail and hospitals. I haven’t tested any of those numbers, so I can’t vouch. I can tell you it’s what they say.
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But I can also tell you this. Years ago, before The Bridge opened in 2008, before anybody was doing anything in this town to get the chronically homeless off the streets, I wrote a sob story about homeless people living on the lawn of City Hall, and I named some of them. A guy I knew who had worked with the homeless for years called me up and said, “Good sob story, Jim, etc, etc.”
But then he said, “I need to tell you about that one guy you named. We know that guy. Well. If you ever walk up to him with your notebook and start asking him questions on a day when he’s off his meds, he will definitely kill you. As in really kill you.”
I could go on with anecdotes like that, as could most people who have been downtown much over the years. The point is, quite aside from the consideration of cost, it isn’t socially viable … it isn’t even socially possible … to house the most mentally and morally whacked out element of our society on the streets of downtown and then think you and I can share those streets for normal daily commerce.
Something has to be done. The solution has to be humane, because we are not monsters. The humane solution is very complicated, and it isn’t ever going to be cheap. But there you have it.