Housing the homeless aids community

Posted Oct. 30, 2009, at 9:03 p.m.

Providing permanent supportive housing to homeless Mainers with disabilities is significantly less expensive than allowing them to remain homeless, but there is a statewide shortage of that type of housing.

That was the consensus of a recent report commissioned by MaineHousing and unveiled during Maine’s annual affordable housing conference last week in Augusta.

The 14-page report, prepared by researchers at the University of New England in concert with social service providers in the Portland area, found that service costs and mental health costs both are reduced when patients have stable housing.

“Initial studies of urban and rural homelessness and this new follow-up study found the same thing: It is less costly for taxpayers and better for the individual to provide them with supportive housings than it is to provide no assistance and allow people with disabilities to live on the streets,” said Nancy Fritz, director of homeless initiatives for MaineHousing.

In rural areas — defined by this study as everything outside Greater Portland — service costs are reduced by 37 percent and mental health costs by 54 percent when those with disabilities have housing. That doesn’t even include inevitable emergency room visits or incarceration costs should those people end up in jail.

The study also shows that a majority of homeless Mainers suffer from some form of mental illness and sometimes multiple forms. Those illnesses often hinder opportunities for them to find housing or employment on their own, which keeps them chronically homeless. Opponents of homeless initiatives, however, fear the appearance that taxpayers are footing the bill for those who can’t get their act together.

The recent study provides further support that permanent housing is a better solution.

“The study and its findings clearly support the need for continued and increased funding to provide supportive housing opportunities for those in need,” said Mary-Haynes Rodgers of the Shalom House in Portland, one of the partners in the study. “This research shows us that not only is it the right and humane thing to do, but the most cost-effective option as well.”

Earlier this year, MaineHousing collaborated with the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, Community Housing of Maine, Community Health and Counseling Services and The Acadia Hospital to renovate an abandoned apartment building in Bangor. That project, unveiled in June, created four new housing units for those identified as chronically homeless and was widely praised. Dennis Marble, director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, said having homeless people keeps him in business, but he would much rather find them all permanent housing.

Still, such housing projects remain relatively rare, although advocates hope increased awareness about the success and long-term cost savings of creating permanent housing lead to more initiatives in the future.

The full study may be found online at: http://www.mainehousing.org/Documents/Homelesss/Homeless-MaineEffectivenessPermSupportive.pdf.

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