Homeless help not so simple

Ed Blackburn

Ed Blackburn

Guest Column by Ed Blackburn, published in the Portland Tribune, May 26, 2011. Blackburn is executive director of Central City Concern in Old Town.

City’s ‘housing first’ policy demonstrates its value as a big step toward a new life for homeless

Peter Korn raises important policy issues regarding public investments in housing for homeless people suffering from addictions and mental illness in “Homeless and addicted: On the street or off?” (May 12).

The article initially poses the issue as a simple dichotomy of “dry vs. wet” housing with adherents advocating for one or the other. The reality is that no one type of housing works well for all or perhaps even most homeless people.

For homeless people who are addicted and motivated to enter recovery, living in a community with others who are experiencing the same journey makes sense and recovery housing is the most effective option. For many, transitional assistance with housing is appropriate because they are completely capable of then working and paying their own way.

Approximately 60 percent of those placed into Central City Concern’s transitional recovery housing finish treatment, are sober and are successfully placed into permanent housing in the community. Another 85 percent remain clean and sober and permanently housed; 70 percent remain employed 12 months after program graduation.

A case in point is Jody, homeless, unemployed and addicted for 20-plus years with multiple arrests and unavailable to his young son and family members. Jody connected to our transition housing and recovery services (Recovery Mentor Program), graduated from our Community Volunteer Corps program, then sought employment assistance with us. Less than a year later, Jody has landed a full-time job, has moved into his own apartment and has reconnected with his son.

There are other beneficial impacts for the community – the Regional Research Institute at Portland State University found that a cohort of 87 graduates reduced their criminal involvement by 93 percent. Criminal involvement during the 12 months prior to entering recovery cost the community $2 million, not including the cost of arrests, court and incarceration.

But not all addicted and mentally ill homeless people are motivated or presently capable of maintaining a sober lifestyle. Many who are chronically homeless have attempted to end their addictions many times without much long term success. Continuous homelessness often results in increased physical and mental deterioration. These people are often the victims of violence, chronic illness and at times volatile encounters with law enforcement.

Several years ago Central City Concern implemented the Community Engagement Program, which is designed as a “housing first” program where housing and services are provided to the chronic homeless who have both serious addictions and mental health issues. These people have been very high users of hospitals and public safety resources. There is no sobriety requirement, but housing has significant benefits for their health and reduces costs to the community.

An independent evaluation by Herbert & Louis LLC found a $4.4 million cost savings to the community as a result of enrolling 293 people in the program. Additionally many clients have entered recovery after they have become stabilized in housing.

Take Brad, for example: With a long history of heroin use, Brad was homeless, sick with Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, frequently arrested and exhibiting major depression symptoms as well. Once into CEP, Brad had housing, medical care, a community and staff who regularly checked in on him. He went on to embrace a recovery lifestyle and his Hep C went into remission. He was no longer on the streets, no longer walking into emergency rooms and no longer burdening our public safety resources.

CCC provides several types of housing (including family housing) that addresses the actual needs of homeless people, their stage of development and capacity to change. Our goal for those experiencing homelessness with addictions and mental illness is to always achieve the highest level of self-sufficiency possible.

Salina is a good example of blossoming self-sufficiency. She started drinking at a very young age and spent about half of her life on parole. She entered our residential alcohol and drug treatment for pregnant/parenting women at Letty Owings Center where she got clean and sober and gave birth to a healthy boy. Eighteen months ago, she completed treatment and moved into supported alcohol and drug-free housing. She seized her opportunities by becoming a full-time student at Portland Community College and attaining full-time employment for a local restaurant.

The city of Portland, Multnomah County and Housing Authority of Portland have made significant contributions to providing housing and services to homeless people. During these challenging times it is even more important that we make future investments in cost-effective housing for people experiencing homelessness, which should include both recovery and housing first options.

These investments ultimately save money for the community in the form of reduced hospitalizations and public safety costs. Furthermore, for previously homeless people – now employed – we turn tax-users into taxpayers.