ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Providing stable, long-term housing for the most medically vulnerable among the city’s chronically homeless improves their overall health and lessens their reliance on social services, ultimately saving the city money.
At least, that has been the city’s experience thus far, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said Thursday during a news conference with agencies and groups partnering with Albuquerque Heading Home.
In the three years since the program began, Albuquerque Heading Home has provided housing for 312 people, some with family members – about 359 people in all.
The three-year savings to the city is about $3.2 million over and above the city’s cost to operate the program. It is also “31.6 percent less than the cost of letting them (homeless) sleep under bridges,” Berry said, pointing to a study conducted by the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research.
According to that study, researchers looked at data from various agencies and factored in the cost of hospital emergency room visits, inpatient medical and mental health services, outpatient medical and behavioral health services, ambulance and fire department response services, jail bookings and homeless shelter expenses.
Once housed at rental homes and apartments throughout the city, participants tend to use far fewer of these services than they did when they were homeless, said Dennis Plummer, chief executive officer of Heading Home.
“Living on the street is not only physically difficult, it makes it very hard to maintain your mental health,” Plummer said. “By providing stable shelter, we’re finding that locally, as well as nationally, mental health outcomes do improve. Imagine carrying your meds around while living on the streets? It doesn’t happen. They don’t do it.”
Having an address makes it easier for these formerly homeless people to selectively use only those social services they need, access the medications they require, and voluntarily take them, Plummer said.
Although participants are not obligated to use any particular social services, program collaborators make available food, case management, financial assistance, crisis intervention, health care and other supportive services.
The retention rate for people housed in the program is just over 80 percent, and more than 80 percent of program participants live with mental health issues, Berry said.
According to a 2013 estimate by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, there are about 1,170 homeless people in Albuquerque on any given night. Of them, the city has identified 600 people who are the target of the housing initiative.
The “housing first” approach to dealing with homelessness is being used in communities across the country with local variations. In Albuquerque, the program “intentionally seeks out people with long-term homelessness who have severe and complex co-occurring disorders,” making them the most vulnerable, said Paula Harper, executive director of the Supportive Housing Coalition, which is also part of the Heading Home initiative.
Under the Albuquerque model, there is no limit on how long people can stay in housing as long as they’re abiding by the terms of their lease, Harper said. They are asked to pay 30 percent of their work, disability or retirement income for rent, if they receive these.