City Gets HUD Grant to Bankroll Housing First Model
By Olin Ericksen
September 16 -- Almost a million dollars in federal funds will be spent on rent by the City over next two years to get Santa Monica's most hardened homeless population off the streets and keep them out of expensive emergency rooms in the region, City officials said Tuesday.
At Tuesday night's City Council meeting, council members and a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official posed with a giant replica of a $717,000 check, the first installment of a $940,000 grant that will be mostly used to boost a new homeless service model being tried for the first time in Southern California, known as "Housing First."
Under the "Housing First" model, the City will subsidize rent for individuals who have lived on the street the longest, are addicted to alcohol and drugs and are the largest drain on emergency systems, City officials said. Currently 30 individuals are in the program, and the number is expected to grow.
While Council members and City officials in charge of homeless services hailed the new model as cutting long-term costs, they cautioned that the program will not act as a hand out, but a hand up for those referred to as the "chronically homeless."
"What Housing First is not, is it’s not leaving someone with substance abuse or mental health issues alone in his or her apartment," said Stacey Rowe, a City human services official who heads up a new homeless unit for the City.
"Its not anything goes, not condoning bad behavior, and not allowing people to just be in their housing and continue to live unconstructive lifestyles," Rowe said.
The City, along with nearly half a dozen service providers that will share the funds, will use an "assertive, relentless and persistent" approach to meet individuals’ needs "whenever, wherever," Rowe said.
"The idea is you do whatever it takes to get people in housing and keep them in housing," she said
During a presentation Tuesday, City officials rolled out statistics to back the "Housing First" program, which they said has worked in New York and San Francisco.
New York's program, called “Pathways to Housing,” estimates that each rental subsidy costs nearly $22,500 per person each year.
Council member Bobby Shriver -- a vocal proponent of Housing First -- called the amount "cheap," compared to doling out nearly $27,500 for a cot in a shelter, $85,000 for a jail cell bed or $175,000 at a State hospital.
"Four days at a hospital pays for a Housing First bed for a year," said Shriver, noting that local hospitals can spend as much as $5,000 a day for care.
In San Francisco, nearly 400 people have been housed since 1998, resulting in a 58 percent reduction in emergency room use, as well as a 57 percent reduction in hospital bed use, City officials said.
City officials also rolled out options on where the participants can be housed.
The City may combine renting units throughout Santa Monica, with "master leasing," where it would purchase units in bulk in individual buildings, which could lead to a discount, City officials said.
A third option is to create a "safe haven," where tenants live together and there are support services on site. All three options, said Rowe, will be connected to round-the-clock support.
The City’s new strategy comes after more than a decade of focusing on a model known as "Continuum of Care." The model, which is used across the region, connects the homeless to services first and offers housing once they are sober.
While the new model will not replace Continuum of Care, City officials said they would evaluate Housing First over the next year to assess its strengths and weaknesses, Rowe said.
City Council member Kevin McKeown said he hoped the new model would bring together those who seemed at odds over the Continuum of Care model.
"I think that the pragmatists and the compassionists have come together, and we recognize that we really do want to help people who are homeless and we are willing to put additional resources into it," McKeown said.
Despite the backing of the federal government -- which gave 10 similar grants to other cities throughout the nation -- hurdles still remain, Shriver said.
"The challenges we face are very substantial since getting the region, as we all know, together to work on this is a real task, but the opportunities are very large," he said.
Locally, City officials have yet to meet with any neighborhood groups, a step City Council member Richard Bloom suggested may be necessary to get the full backing of local residents.
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