Homelessness is the type of uncomfortable issue that people either tend to ignore or accept as a fact of life. Our response as a society has been largely to try to manage the problem rather than solve it.
But there’s a growing body of evidence saying that homelessness is solvable, and that the cost of doing so is cheaper than the alternative. The approach is called “Housing First”–which means placing individuals or families in permanent housing and providing support services. Housing First makes economic sense because the homeless are a burden on emergency rooms and other public resources.
One study from North Carolina found that creating apartments for 85 formerly homeless cut hospital bills from $2.5 million to $760,000 and reduced arrests by 78%. Another from Colorado estimates the average homeless person costs the state $43,000 a year, compared to $17,000 for housing them.
Community Solutions, a New York City nonprofit, is a big advocate of Housing First. Its 100,000 Homes Campaign housed 105,000 people in less than four years, and it’s now working on eradicating homelessness among veterans.
Housing First is key to the group’s approach, but not the only way that Community Solutions is doing things differently. For the last few months, the group has been working on a new web-based tool it hopes will better coordinate limited resources. It’s called Homelink and it was developed with the Palantir software company.
“In many communities, the resources exist to solve this problem and in all communities more resources are available to make significant headway than communities realize,” says Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions. “Real time data can make those resources evident and accessible.”
Homelink, which is being rolled out to 11 cities this year, is a way of prioritizing people whose needs are greatest and getting them support as quickly as possible. It establishes the totality of housing and services in an area, allocating resources as needs arise.
Outreach workers identify a homeless individual, enter information about their age and background (say, if they’re a military veteran), how long they’ve been homeless, and evidence of disability or illness. Based on that, the system then automatically matches that profile with local resources. If the person meets the definition of “chronic” homeless (homeless for more than a year, plus a disability), they’re fast-tracked to housing if it’s available.
“What you want to do is connect someone like this to housing as quickly as possible,” says Jake Maguire, a spokesperson for Community Solutions. “You don’t want them to jump through hoops. You want to get them into a safe, stable home, then wrap around supportive services. That is a cost-effective, evidence-based way of ending homelessness. It’s going to work 85% of the time.”
Haggerty says Homelink wouldn’t be a big deal in the private sector. It’s a logical way of establishing all the resources you have to hand, then allocating them based on need. But it’s not how most communities do things at the moment. Frequently, there’s no centralized system for identifying homeless in a detailed, up-to-date way, and assets are spread across agencies and non-government groups.
“People now realize how critical integration of resources is and how promising technology is as a way of leveraging these bits of information,” she says. “They can see if they have enough resources and what the nature of the gap is, so we can move from speaking in vague claims like ‘Oh, we need more money’ to saying ‘we need X amount to get Y amount of homeless out.'”
Haggerty hopes to involve a wider array of people in dealing with homelessness, including volunteers for outreach work and active military who can speak to veterans (as happened in New Orleans, the first city to eradicate veteran homelessness).
The hardest part of introducing Homelink will be in persuading established interests to come on-board and do things differently. “There’s a whole lot of money going into maintaining the status quo,” she says. “But running shelters and transitional services wouldn’t be needed in a world where we solve the problem. People get hijacked into believing the highest good is ‘let me keep my organization’s government contracts going, so we can manage this problem.'”