Partnership weighing participation in national initiative to house the homeless

Homeless people rest on the sidewalk by Five Points Park in downtown Sarasota. In response to business and residents’ complaints, the City Commission removed the benches from the park. Photo by Norman Schimmel

The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness is weighing whether to participate in a national program to provide housing for the most medically vulnerable homeless people in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

During the nonprofit’s Continuum of Care meeting, held Aug. 8 at New College, Linda Kaufman, eastern United States field organizer of the 100,000 Homes Campaign of Community Solutions, discussed the success of the program in cities such as Washington, D.C.

Richard Martin, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership, noted before Kaufman began her remarks that the partnership would be conducting its biannual “Point in Time” census of homeless people in January 2013, as required by federal law. In conjunction with that effort, he said, a registry could be compiled to enable the partnership to participate in the 100,000 Homes program.

“Is this something that we can do here?” Martin asked. “That’s a question we want answered to really be able to engage with Linda and her campaign.”

However, members of the audience indicated the sticking point in Sarasota and Manatee counties might be a lack of affordable housing.

Still, Kaufman said, “You are a target community. You have a lot of homeless people.”

During her presentation, Kaufman pointed out, “Medicaid costs drop 60 percent when someone moves from chronic homelessness to supportive, open housing.”

“The issue is to realign the community, to say, ‘Let’s get the people who are most likely to die, who are most vulnerable, at the top of the list and get them housed,’” Kaufman told the approximately 30 people present, representing about 20 organizations

The goal the program has established, she said, is to find housing for 2.5 percent of the chronically homeless in a community each month. If that goal can be achieved, Kaufman said, “you’ll end chronic homelessness in your community in four years.”

Nationwide, she said, 150 communities have joined the program, and more then 19,000 people who had been considered chronically homeless have been housed. The retention rate is 89 percent, she added.

In Washington, D.C., she said, the program had found housing for 1,700 homeless people, “and 95 percent of them were still in their housing at the end of the first year.”

To underscore the importance of housing, Kaufman showed the group a photo of several homeless people in their mid-40s; it was taken in Boston in 2000. Only one of them remains alive, she added, drawing gasps from the audience.

About 45 percent of homeless people are medically vulnerable, Kaufman said.

Staff of the Health Care for the Homeless program in Boston went through hundreds of medical records of people who had died on the streets, she added. They found that if someone has been living on the streets for six months and has one or more of the following health-related factors, the person has an elevated risk of dying on the streets:

• End-stage renal disease.

• A history of cold-weather injuries. (While that is not a problem in Southwest Florida, Kaufman pointed out, homeless people in this area can be affected by the heat or develop health problems from being wet for too long.)

• HIV-positive status or AIDS.

• Liver disease or cirrhosis.

• Being over the age of 60.

Additionally, Kaufman said, anyone who has been to an emergency room three times in a three-month period or who has had three or more ER or hospital admissions over a year has an elevated risk of dying.

Those with chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes are also at greater risk of dying, Kaufman said; moreover, “they are costing our system a lot of money” in health-care costs.

The people who meet the criteria for medical vulnerability need to go to the top of the priority list for housing, she pointed out.

The guidelines for the 100,000 Homes program, she continued, are to figure out who is vulnerable, prioritize the list of people needing housing and get them into their own residences.

If the partnership chooses to develop a registry at the same time it conducts the Point in Time census, Kaufman said, volunteers need to go out for three days, instead of just one day, to gain all the information they need.

When audience members expressed skepticism about whether enough affordable housing was available to make the program work in Sarasota and Manatee counties, Kaufman pointed out that the National Association of Housing and Reinvestment Organizations, the professional group for all Housing Authority officials, has endorsed the 100,000 Homes campaign.

She added that the state of Florida also has to comply with the federal Olmstead Decision, a factor that might facilitate housing assistance.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires states to place qualified individuals with mental disabilities in community settings, instead of institutions, whenever treatment professionals determine such placement is appropriate and the affected persons do not oppose the placement. The ruling is called the Olmstead Decision.

In an interview after the meeting, Martin pointed out that many houses in the two counties remain in foreclosure. Although affordability is the key concern, he added that the partnership does have assistance from several federal programs that could be utilized to start the 100,000 Homes Program locally.

He did not indicate a timetable for making a decision on whether to proceed with the initiative.