Except for a few stints at a shelter, Mark Quinlan has spent the past few years living in Plaza de Cesar Chavez Park, right across the street from the San Jose Fairmont Hotel. He calls the park “the affordable Fairmont.”
Chronically homeless for six years, the 57-year-old Quinlan has cycled through repeated contacts with the police and visits to the county hospital’s emergency room — most recently for a cracked skull after a fall — all on the public dime.
But on Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors is poised to fund a $1.2 million subsidized housing program for 100 chronically homeless people — anyone living more than a year on the street with a disabling mental or physical condition. Supporters say the program will improve treatment for people such as Quinlan, and save taxpayer dollars.
“It’s the right thing to do, and it’s fiscally responsible,” said Supervisor Mike Wasserman, the lone Republican on the five-member board. “And there’s not a whole lot of things like that.”
If passed, the county’s one-year pilot program would begin as soon as April, and cover $12,000 to pay for a rental unit, with at least $500,000 more in additional funding from public and private sources to pay for case managers to supervise each resident.
The program is part of Housing 1000, the local arm of a nationwide 100,000 Homes Campaign aimed at providing stable housing and supportive services — an apartment and an assigned caseworker — to chronically homeless people. Housing 1000 hopes to do that for 1,000 homeless by 2013.
County leaders say they’re relying on studies that show the strategy is less expensive than homeless shelters, and the frequent visits by homeless people to hospital emergency rooms, inpatient psychiatric services and jails.
Based on other programs in the region, state and nation, they estimate that every chronically homeless person in the county costs taxpayers $60,000 annually, which could be halved if the person had a permanent place to live. The county will assess the program after one year.
“It’s a cheaper and more efficient and holistic way to end homelessness,” said Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, a program of The Health Trust, that seeks to end homelessness in the county. “People don’t think that the guy living under the bridge is costing anything. But that’s absolutely not true.”
A 2011 Santa Clara County homeless census and survey tallied 7,045 homeless in the county on any given night. Of these, 2,520 are considered chronically homeless, or the most vulnerable. That designation is based on factors including how long the person has been living on the streets and their increased risk for death based on their health conditions. Sixty-one homeless people died in the county last year.
“It’s not just about giving them a place, and then walking away from them,” Loving explained of the program, which also seeks to reintegrate many homeless back into society. “We want to see if they can become more stable and engaged in our community, and there are lots of ways to do that.”
Experts say permanent housing makes fiscal sense. It would allow a homeless person to be contacted regularly by case managers, who can check up on that person’s mental and physical health, instead of waiting until the condition becomes more severe, complicated and costly. When clients have a stable address, case managers also can determine if the person is eligible for Social Security or MediCal, among other benefits that a person may not be receiving while living on the streets.
“When we looked around at the options available for providing the stable housing, this looked like the best method that we could implement, and have a solution,” said Gary Graves, the county’s chief operating officer. “Creating these 100 vouchers gives us a way to test the system and prove if the concept makes sense.”
Graves and others point to other Bay Area cities that have implemented similar measures with success.
San Francisco’s Housing First program, for example, has reduced the cost of homeless safety net services from $61,000 a year per homeless person to $16,000 for those who receive housing.
In San Mateo, a collaboration with the city, county and the nonprofit Shelter Network resulted in the city spending $4 million to buy and convert a former downtown hotel to house 16 chronically homeless people. Since 2009, its leaders say the project has seen the hotel residents’ medical expenses plunge 85 percent, while police contacts have dropped 99 percent.
“We strongly believe in the Housing First model,” said Sandy Council, San Mateo’s neighborhood improvement and housing manager. “Put the money into the housing and in the end, you will save on services later.”
Council said Redwood City and South San Francisco are working on their own projects as a result of San Mateo’s success.
Not everyone is necessarily convinced of the benefits.
John Roeder, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers’ Association, said he hadn’t heard about the county’s proposal and wondered whether a decrease in costs will actually result.
“There may be an increase or a decrease in costs,” he said. “We’ll have to see.”
As for Quinlan, the former wallpaper hanger said he would like to be considered for a permanent housing voucher, especially for a unit with handicap access so he could manage in his wheelchair.
“I’ll be listening to see what happens,” Quinlan said of Tuesday’s vote.
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.
BY THE NUMBERS
In San Mateo: A permanent-housing project for 16 chronically homeless people resulted in medical expenses dropping after one year from
$195.93 per person per month to
$28.98. Police contacts for the same people dropped from
38.46 contacts per person per month to
In San Francisco: The Housing First model has reduced the cost of services from
$61,000 a year for a homeless person to
$16,000 for those with permanent housing.Santa Clara County leaders say the estimated
$60,000 annual cost of services for one chronically homeless person would be reduced to
$30,000 per person with permanent housing.
Sources: City of San Francisco; City of San Mateo; Destination: Home and Santa Clara County