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Viewpoint: Permanent supportive housing for the homeless works

Viewpoint: Permanent supportive housing for the homeless works

By David C. Phillips

 Feb 2, 2020

A man died recently in South Bend because he was homeless. Chronic homelessness can be complex; a lack of housing can overlap with substance use or mental health issues. Like many readers, I did not know Darrell Bradberry, and I won’t pretend to understand his life or death.

But as anyone who drives near the Main Street viaduct daily knows, chronic homelessness affects many more people in our city. The good news, though, is that we know how to help.

As reported in The Tribune, Bradberry, along with 100 other residents of our city, was on a wait list for permanent supportive housing. Permanent supportive housing provides housing upfront, without conditions. It then uses stable housing as a platform to offer assistance with substance use or mental health. This approach differs from how we have traditionally responded to chronic homelessness; it doesn’t condition housing on sobriety or much anything else. The first time this approach was presented to me years ago, it seemed too simple. Won’t a person’s deeper issues undermine even an offer of free housing?

But it works. Permanent supportive housing gets people off the streets. In my day job, I study whether what we do to fight poverty works. For much of what we do to fight poverty, the evidence is not clear either way.

Permanent supportive housing is different. Just as a new drug would go through a medical trial comparing the new treatment to a placebo, several trials have been completed comparing permanent supportive housing to other options. Consistently, permanent supportive housing performs better than the status quo at moving people from streets and emergency shelters into housing. And when the federal government poured money into permanent supportive housing for veterans a few years ago, the number of homeless veterans dropped by one person for every housing voucher it funded. So if you are happy to rely on drug trials that say Tylenol is safe and effective for your headache, you should also trust that we know how to get people into housing.

The tragedy is that one man died but perhaps even more so that we had a chance to prevent his death. To house the 100 people currently waiting would cost roughly $1 million in rental payments and administrative costs per year. That is a lot of money. But we also found $18 million to make (much needed) upgrades to Howard Park. If we can and should find money to upgrade our parks and downtown to make our city a more attractive place to live, we can and should find resources for supportive housing.

The greater barrier may instead be us. Those lucky enough to get permanent supportive housing vouchers struggle to find landlords to take their vouchers. The city and the South Bend Heritage Foundation have been trying to build more dedicated permanent supportive housing units, only to be stopped by neighborhood opposition. That opposition is understandable because some parts of the city and the county have been asked to do much more to respond to homelessness than others. But at some point we each have a part to play as a neighbor, landlord, philanthropist or taxpayer.

The final line of his obituary read, “Darrell is homeless no more.” Perhaps, this community could commit making that true for our neighbors while they are alive.

David C. Phillips is an associate research professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame.