Advocates make the practical case for eradicating homelessness in county

October 27, 2011|By Doug Miller

Forget the moral imperative. OK, not really, but just for the sake of the argument.

Ending homelessness in Howard County isn't just the right thing to do, it'll save the taxpayers money in the long run.

That's what the Howard County Committee to End Homelessness has told county department heads and County Council members heading into the budget process fof fiscal year 2013, and is backing that argument with numbers.

The 60-member committee last year produced its Plan to End Homelessness. The boldly named document refutes the notion that homelessness is inevitable and maps out strategies to eradicate it in Howard County.

The panel is urging that five first steps toward that goal be made part of the county budget next year and has made its initial pitch to the heads of the county departments of Housing, Health, Citizen Services and Planning and Zoning. Their initial feedback, committee member Joe Willmott said, has been understandably cautious.

"These things can be difficult to do in a climate of budget austerity," Willmott told me. "We're realistic about finding the money."

Within an operating budget that totaled $871 million this year, the $424,000 the committee would like to see in next year's is barely visible and will ultimately ease the drain on public resources associated with homelessness.

The committee's costliest line-item recommendation, at $155,000 in fiscal 2013, would have the county continuing a pilot program that from March 2010 through last month kept a roof over the heads of 94 families with short-term rent or relocation assisance. At a cost of $1,600 per household, it was a bargain compared to the $25,000 a year it takes to keep a family in a shelter.

Of course, as the committee's report points out, those seeking shelter can't always get it here. The main providers of services to the homeless — Grassroots and Bridges to Housing Stability — have to turn away those seeking shelter an average of 11 times a day.

The latter organization used to be called Congregations Concerned for the Homeless. Along with the name change has come a broader focus. Before, the group focused solely on transitional housing, but now it also works to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place, executive director Jane O'Leary said.

That's especially tricky in one of the nation's richest counties. It's not unusual to encounter people of low income who spend half or more of that income on housing, O'Leary said.

So why don't they live somewhere more affordable? "We certainly explore that option with them," she said. On the other hand, these are people who are employed here and serve the rest of us. "A community ought to be able to support its work force."

And don't forget that those who work here but have to live elsewhere consume more fuel and put more vehicles on congested roadways.

Tracking homelessness in the county is an inexact science. Indeed, the committee is also asking the county to fund a management information system that "will connect all service providers, enabling them to coordinate actions, track individual clients and serve them more rapidly while controlling costs. [The system] will also be a means of evaluating progress toward ending homelessness."

However, a snapshot survey from Jan. 27, 2010 found 133 people in the shelter or transitional housing and another 88 living in cars, outdoors or some other place not meant for human habitation. Of those 221 people, more than half were in family units.

Many more are "on the verge," Willmott said, staying in motels or sleeping on the sofas of friends or family.

Homeless people struggle with substance abuse and mental illness more commonly than those who are not homeless, so there's often more to helping a homeless person get his life on track than getting him indoors. But when his primary struggle is coping with the elements, it's a lot harder for him to address those other issues.

So the committee's plan, which borrows from successful strategies seen elsewhere, advocates a "housing first" approach. Get a person into permanent housing, the thinking goes, and the rest becomes more manageable.

As local governments everywhere are turning over couch cushions in search of spare change, this sort of common-sense pitch is the smart one. Let's hope our leaders are smart enough to act on it.

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