A New Way to Combat Homelessness: Can Los Angeles Learn?

How do you reduce the entire population of homeless in your state to just 300 people? You give them homes.

Now, you might think this is crazy. Or, you may have heard the stories in the news recently about Utah, where they've managed to reduce their homeless population by 75 percent since 2005. And they've done it by giving the homeless housing. And they've saved money doing it.

Does it sound counterintuitive to give housing to people who are potentially mentally unstable and definitely low income? It may sound that way, but Utah took a chance, and it worked.

The Housing First project was based on a test conducted by New York University psychologist Sam Tsemberis in 1992. Tsemberis told the publication Mother Jones: "I thought, they're schizophrenic, alcoholic, traumatized, brain damaged. Why not just give them a place to live and offer them free counseling and therapy, healthcare, and let them decide if they want to participate?" After testing his theory on almost 250 chronically homeless people in NYC for five years, 88 percent were still living in the housing at a much lower cost to taxpayers and the state government.

And although this program was taken up in places like Seattle, Denver and the entire state of Massachusetts, it's Utah that's had the most success with Housing First. It was a 10-year plan that was regarded with some wariness at first, state legislators gave it the okay. The first tenant of the Housing First project seems like a misguided way of doing things, but it actually has worked-rather than requiring a person to get sober and a job before they get permanent housing, they get to keep their state-provided housing even if they are still using.

The National Alliance for Homelessness alleges that it is more helpful and successful to move people into permanent housing first, then give them the support they need. The stability makes it easier for the homeless to accept and stick with the program.

And, contrary to what it sounds like, this housing is not free. The residents pay $50 or 30% of their income, whichever is greater, as rent each month. Plus, when you add up how much it costs for shelters, jail stays, ambulances, hospital visits and other services for the homeless, it can cost the government $20,000 per year for a single homeless person. By using a system similar to Housing First, i.e. permanent housing for a single homeless person, plus a social worker to help them transition, only costs the state $8,000 per year, according to The New Yorker.

So, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's response last week to controversial legislation looking to target and clean up homeless encampments has put everyone on edge. He allowed the measures to become law without his formal approval, thanks to a strange loophole in the Los Angeles legislature. This hand-off approach has angered both supporters and opponents of the regulations, who feel that the mayor should take a stand and show leadership in this problem that has plagued Los Angeles for years.

"Supporters, among them shopkeepers and homeowners, say that the bills are necessary to check the spread of encampments. Opponents say they criminalize homelessness," said a L.A. Times article on July 3rd. This is not a new conflict in the fight against homelessness.

But with the data about the success of Utah's Housing First project-and remember, that's a state, not a city-shouldn't Los Angeles be looking for a different solution? Is there a new way to combat homelessness? Yes, there are roughly one million more people in the city of Los Angeles than the state of Utah, but surely their project is a step in the right direction.

What do you think? Please let us know in the comments.

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