Housing First

By: Colleen Sinsky

Lately what’s been taking up my time at work is one of the less glamorous aspects of social service – gathering data to comply with funding regulations.One of our larger sources of funding is a city program which provides a flexible source for us to pay housing costs.

The catch- from my perspective- is the series of surveys that we are required to give the recipients.These “cost-avoidance” surveys collect data to compare the costs to the government of providing subsidized housing versus the costs to government of allowing individuals to remain homeless.Giving these surveys is tough- tracking down hundreds of people from a list is a logistical challenge and I sometimes feel invasive asking these questions that are fairly personal.

“How many nights last year did you sleep on the streets? In a short-term shelter?”

“How many times in the year did you go to the Emergency Room?”

“How many contacts did you have with the police? Arrests?”

“If you have children, have they been in foster care?”

A lot of the folks I visit for the survey are lonely, and relish the chance to get to share their story with a new person. I think that sometimes being able to share their experience, and know that the time they spent under the bridge was noticed, documented- validates what they went through prior to getting keys to their own place.Sitting down at someone’s kitchen table in a dingy studio apartment downtown, I try to frame the survey into a conversation, rather than the series of bullet points it is, and it opens the floor to talk about some really incredible stories.I love being able to just listen without an agenda that I have to get across during our appointment. While people have a wide range of reactions to the survey, I almost always feel as if I’ve been given a gift- of someone choosing to let me into a little bit of their life and telling me the story behind each of the ER visits, the arrests, the nights it was too cold to not go to the Red Cross warming shelter.

At the end of each survey I always thank the person and explain that, as pointless as the survey seems, that it’s their chance to let the government know based their own experience, “hey! It’s cheaper for you to be putting people into housing rather than letting them sleep on the streets!”And it is.The “housing first” model has proved cheaper to taxpayers because of increased costs associated with the higher rate of incarceration, emergency shelter and hospitalization required for homeless individuals.

This interactive tool, from the National Alliance to End Homelessness shows a breakdown of Portland’s costs per individual and drop from $42,074 to $26,819 once the person has been supported into permanent housing.Right now, Multnomah County’s Ending Homelessness Advisory Council has a ten year plan that points out that of the $30 million spent on homelessness, just 12% goes towards permanent housing.

This is a tough policy call to make, and I would feel unqualified being anywhere but on the sidelines, gathering data, but I hope that this controversial balance becomes a larger conversation.In the meantime though, I’ve helped out with four moves this week and am happy to be playing my small role in Portland.