A program that helps to reduce homelessness

In this week's Phoenix, Marion Davis writes about Housing First.

Think of permanent housing not as something you earn, but as a human right, and as a foundation people need to rebuild their lives.

It's called Housing First, and since its beginnings in New York City in the early 1990s, it has been proven to more effectively move people out of homelessness — especially chronic cases — than the traditional system of shelters and tightly structured social services.

Studies across the country have found Housing First kept, on average, about 85 percent of clients in permanent housing for at least a year, twice the success rate of the old model.

In Rhode Island, Housing First was introduced in 2005, run by Riverwood Mental Health Services, a Warren-based community mental health provider, with $300,000 from the state, $175,000 from the United Way of Rhode Island, and vouchers from Rhode Island Housing.

The local results have been even better: Of 41 people tracked, 38 are still in permanent housing, says Eric Hirsch, a Providence College sociologist who has evaluated the program.

Hirsch also estimated that, based on the average cost of hospital stays, emergency room visits, imprisonment and shelter stays, the system saved a net $7946 per person in the first year of participation, after accounting for the cost of services used, case management, and housing.

"It's a consistent pattern across the country that you save money," Hirsch says.

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