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State group aims to end homelessness in 10 years.

By Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. [05.11.04] — On any given night in North Carolina, thousands of men, women and children have no place to call home, yet society spends a lot on homeless strategies that don’t solve the problem, homeless advocates say.

Finding new strategies that work is the goal of the N.C. Interagency Council for Coordinating Homeless Programs, which hopes by the end of the year to write a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

“We’re spending phenomenal amounts of money on strategies that don’t work,” says Martha Are, a homeless policy specialist coordinating the council’s efforts.

“There’s research that says we can spend less money over time with better outcomes,” she says, “better for their quality of life, and for the community’s quality of life.”

The council, housed in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, brings together 28 stakeholders from across the state, including representatives of nine state agencies; housing and homeless advocates; city, county and state government officials; representatives from the private sector; and a member who is or was homeless.

It is difficult to measure the state’s homeless population, but based on a “point-in-time count” conducted last December, Are believes, at least 10,000 people were homeless that night.

That number likely is much higher, Are says, because homeless-services providers in only about half the state’s 100 counties participated in the count, and because the count tracked only people living on the street and in shelters, not people forced to stay temporarily with friends or family, or those living in hotels, abandoned buildings or makeshift campgrounds.

Costs for managing the state’s homeless population using current approaches are not available, but case studies suggest the costs would be high.

In Asheville, for example, 19 chronically homeless people were arrested more than 800 times total over two years, according to an effort led by the Asheville Downtown Social Issues Task Force, a group named by the city council to study issues affecting the downtown area.

Police, jail and hospital costs for dealing with those people topped $1,200 per person per month over two years, with no positive outcomes such as finding housing or treating underlying medical conditions or addictions, says Are, who served on the task force.

That tab does not include other costs such as detoxification, ambulances, homeless shelters or other services.

“We need to shift how we spend those dollars so we find housing with associated services,” says Are, “That would be cheaper.”

Are points to a model in New York City, Pathways to Housing, that serves homeless people with disabling mental illnesses coupled with addiction.

Unlike most programs that require participants to be sober and under psychiatric care before providing housing, Pathways moves homeless people directly into permanent rental housing, then assists them with services and treatments.

“It’s like spinning wheels,” Sam Tsemberis, director of Pathways, says of the traditional approach, “costing a lot of money and getting nowhere.”

Housing a person in the Pathways program costs roughly $20,000 a year, says Tsemberis, including at least two monthly visits from staffers, compared to about $30,000 a year for New York City shelters.

About 88 percent of program participants remain housed after five years, Pathways says.

When finished, the North Carolina plan will contain “broad goals and action steps aimed at building buy-in and political will” to put both preventive and responsive initiatives into effect, Are says.

The plan will be research-driven, she says.

Where data already exist, such as for the chronically homeless population, she says, concrete strategies and steps will be outlined.

Where data are scarce, such as for homeless children and families, the first step will be to conduct research to guide policy and programs, she says.

The result will be a working document, Are says, one that changes over the next 10 years as successful approaches are identified, as new research is gathered and as the political, economic and social environments evolve.

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