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Plan to end homelessness on track

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — While they represent 11 percent of Forsyth County’s homeless population, the chronically homeless account for 40 percent of the cost of providing homeless shelter and services.

To move homeless people into more stable and supportive living conditions, and reduce the cost of serving them, local officials have embarked on an effort to develop a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in the county.

With United Way of Forsyth County coordinating the effort, the plan aims to better allocate and integrate services for the homeless, move the chronically homeless into permanent housing and ease the strain on emergency beds for people who are temporarily homeless.

The strategy will depend on developing partnerships between public, business and nonprofit entities to build on existing services and on effective initiatives being developed in other communities throughout the United States, says Andrea Kurtz, implementation director for the 10-year plan.

Based on a “point-in-time” count conducted January 25, 2006, 503 people were homeless in Forsyth County, including 183 people were chronically homeless.

According to the federal government, people are chronically homeless if they have been homeless for the better part of a year, or repeatedly over the course of several years, and have a disabling condition.

In Forsyth County, nine organizations now serve the homeless through 15 facilities that house 458 beds, with each bed costing $11,742 a year, on average.

“We don’t have enough beds in emergency shelters to shelter the people who are currently homeless,” says Kurtz, former managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Northwest North Carolina.

The 10-year plan calls for developing 261 units of permanent housing that would include support services for people with disabilities or needing treatment for mental-health or substance-abuse problems, and 69 units of transitional housing.

People who are chronically homeless often have been discharged from mental-health facilities, jails, drug-treatment programs or foster-care homes, and many have been living in emergency shelters for as long as 20 years, Kurtz says.

“It costs a lot of money to house people that way,” she says. “We as a community will save a significant amount of money by being able to move these people from emergency housing to permanent housing.”

Borrowing strategies used in other cities, the plan also aims to help increase the rate at which homeless people qualify for federal supplemental security income.

The supplemental support, while modest, can give recipients a better chance to begin paying rent and addressing their health.

And if local agencies can help them also secure housing vouchers or rental assistance, recipients of that supplemental income can begin moving from chronic homelessness to permanent housing, Kurtz says.

Also key to the plan to end homelessness is the need to develop more affordable housing, not just for the homeless but for low-paid working people, she says.

“As fast as we put chronically homeless people into housing, we’ll be creating more homeless people through the lacking of affordable housing,” she says. “If our system doesn’t change to meet the needs that we have now and the needs we predict will be in the future, it will break and there will be an exponential rise in the homelessness we have in our community.”

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