Posted on January 26, 2011
This week’s blog was written by VSH’s Executive Director, Alice Tousignant.
Five years ago, we were all scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do with a certain segment of the homeless population who weren’t getting helped. These were individuals who were chronically homeless with serious mental illness, many of whom also had a co-occurring substance abuse issue. Truthfully, many of us had gotten to the point of saying that this specific population chose to be homeless— that was our excuse. The thing is, no one bothered to ask them what they wanted and if they really did want to be homeless. The bottom line was that the community, including Virginia Supportive Housing, didn’t know how to help them and we had almost given up trying.
But then two things happened: we starting hearing stories from around the nation about how chronically homeless people were costing the community money—in other words, even though chronically homeless people comprise a relatively small percentage (about 15%) of the overall population of people experiencing homelessness, they were using a disproportionately high amount of the resources in the community. We also started hearing about some best practice programs that were successfully housing this population, and these programs were gradually spreading around the nation.
One of these programs was Pathways to Housing, a program that began in New York almost 10 years ago. After hearing about this program, I must admit I was very skeptical. Not only did I not really believe it could work, it also seemed very costly. Then PBS did a special on a gentleman called “Footie” who they followed as he entered the Pathways program. One of the things I vividly remember from the Pathways video was that they talked to individuals who had been living on the streets for years and asked them what they wanted most. And, guess what they said? They wanted housing. They didn’t say they wanted to remain homeless. That video turned my skepticism to amazement and optimism. I remember thinking, “We can do this here in Richmond.”
Working with many partners in the community, including Homeward, the Daily Planet, the Community Services Boards of Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico and the Virginia Housing Development Authority, A Place to Start (APTS) became our Pathways to Housing in Greater Richmond. The program was launched in late 2007 and began taking individuals off the street shortly thereafter.
APTS places individuals with an extensive history of homelessness and a serious mental illness into permanent housing and wraps intensive services around them. APTS has a dedicated service team of professionals, including a psychiatrist, nurse, social worker, peer counselor, substance abuse counselor and employment specialist who provide services 24/7. APTS also has a housing specialist who works with landlords to broker leases, get clients into permanent housing, and ensure that program participants and landlords are getting what they need.
We knew the program worked because it was evidenced based, but we needed to prove it worked here in Richmond. So, we undertook an evaluation funded through the Greater Richmond Chamber Foundation and conducted by the Central VA Health Planning Agency. The research looked at hospital and incarceration data on 50 clients enrolled in the program and measured costs and incidents 20 months prior to program entry and 20 months after. The research is complete and the report was released today.
While we knew the program would work, we didn’t know how well it would work. APTS has taken 58 people off the streets in three years with a 98% success rate in keeping people stably housed! Only one person has returned to homelessness.
And APTS is saving the community precious resources. The research shows that the program has saved the community over $320,000 in the first 20 months in hospital and incarceration costs alone. This does not even include other costs, such as ambulance costs, judiciary costs, and the costs to the homeless services system.
Has this program made a difference in the community? Yes! In addition to cost savings, it is making a big difference in the community. We’re taking people off the streets. Most of the folks in the program were unsheltered prior to entering the program and were counted as such in the community’s twice yearly count of individuals experiencing homelessness. In July 2008, there were 148 people who were counted as “unsheltered homeless.” In July 2010, that number had gone down to 119, which is a 19% reduction in two years! Some of this reduction is due to APTS.
What about peoples’ lives? Just ask Jerome who has been in the program for over two years. He had been homeless for eight years, living in alleys, dumpsters, and under cars and bushes in Richmond. He suffered frostbite in both feet. “I struggled like a dog.” He said that he would have died if he had lived on the street one more year.
And, there are many more stories like Jerome’s. Despite all that we have accomplished through VSH and APTS, there is still plenty of work that needs to be done. There are still people living on the streets who need to get into housing and get the help they need, and we can’t do that without the community’s support. To support A Place To Start and the work of VSH to provide proven permanent solutions to homelessness, click here. Thank you!