Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Housing First, Housing Works

I started work as an AmeriCorps volunteer this month. When I filled out my application, I had no idea what I would be doing. I have been placed with the Homeless Youth Resource Center and while I haven't officially started there yet, the issues and people I'll be working with will be unlike anything I've done in my life. When I interviewed for the position, the director said that I was overqualified for the position. I didn't think so because while I have worked in many capacities over the years to assist those in poverty, I have never worked directly with them. I'll save my personal experiences for another post because after today, I realized how fortunate I have been.

Today, as a part of my training, I attended the 5th Annual Housing Summit for the state. About 7 years ago, a national movement started to figure out what the causes of homelessness are and to figure out solutions to stop and prevent them. 2-3 years ago, Utah (and many other states) realized that the solution to homelessness is not providing more services to homeless individuals and families (i.e. shelter, food, state/federal services) but to first provide housing. Housing leads to jobs which leads to self-sufficiency which leads to stability and so on and so on.

For over 20 years, our country has neglected the homeless--or at least turned away from the problem. One of the presenters from a suburban county today said that no city in her county wanted to provide transitional housing for chronically homeless individuals; they refused to believe that homeless people live in their cities. What I learned today is that, by providing housing for people, we are giving them a new lease on life. Having quality, safe housing affects every aspect of our lives.

Our keynote speaker today was Philip Mangano, Executive Director of the U.S. Intra-agency on Homelessness. He said that for years, the government only thought of homelessness as an economic issue. But over the years, non-profit organizations started to realize that it was a moral and spiritual issue. Today, he was proud to say, both government and non-profits realize that it encompasses both moral and economic benefits. This has lead to the creation of good public policies to help end homelessness which helps the community, the homeless, and the taxpayers.

This correlation can best be viewed in a recent study done here in Salt Lake. The study simply showed that placing the chronically homeless in supportive housing saves lives and money. 8 of 39 chronically homeless men were placed into housing. Collectively, these 39 men logged 15,000 nights in jail, an average of 837 arrests annually, 433 bookings and 155 ambulance calls which cost taxpayers $2.6 million. The 8 who were provided housing show a 655 average drop in bookings and a 55% reduction in jail time. 7 of the 39 died, which may have been prevented.

Simply put, the message of today's conference was "Housing First, Housing Works." It's immoral that anyone in our country should have to live without shelter--something that most of us take for granted. I certainly have. There are many reasons people are homeless just as there are many solutions. Housing is only one of the solutions to solving poverty. But it's the most important and very step that needs to take place.

I hope that my work over the next year with the HYRC will provide me with the opportunity to directly make a difference in someone's life. One day within my lifetime, I know that homelessness will cease to exist due to the efforts of the people like those I met today. Our country may not be able to solve a lot of problems, but we can solve this one.

Mangano said the mission of the ICH is, "A Home for Every American." This, he said, is perfection.

Can you imagine a world of perfection?


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