On March 7, the Mercury News published a story about the plight of Giselle McDonald, a 74-year-old homeless woman who, after living in her car for years, has been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Because treatment may lead to weakness and violent illness, she cannot receive it without stable housing. Thus, faced with wait lists that are “miles long,” she is unable to receive essential medical care.
While McDonald’s situation is a particularly disturbing one, she is not alone. Santa Clara County is home to an estimated 2,520 chronically homeless people, many of whom struggle with persistent unemployment or underemployment, untreated mental illness or medical conditions, histories of drug and alcohol use, disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder and other barriers to stable housing.
Destination: Home is excited to be a partner in the Housing 1000 Campaign, our communitywide effort to house 1,000 people such as McDonald over the next two years. We applaud the recent commitment by the county and San Jose to house 120 chronically homeless people, using local dollars and leveraging the services of our committed homeless service providers.
We also are grateful for the Housing Authority’s recent contribution of 30 percent of its turnover vouchers, which will house an estimated 108 people. We might not have reached 1,000 yet, but with a few more similar contributions, the solution is around the corner.
The approach that we are taking — connecting chronically homeless people to housing — should not be understood as a charitable gesture. It is sound policy:
It costs less to solve homelessness. Many chronically homeless people rely upon emergency services. They receive medical care from emergency rooms and crisis-oriented psychiatric interventions. They cycle in and out of county jails for petty offenses related to homelessness. In many cities, it can cost more than $40,000 per year to provide acute, uncoordinated care to chronically homeless people. Placing them in permanent supportive housing typically costs less than $20,000 per year.
It improves lives. Homeless people not only receive the most expensive care, but they also experience some of the worst health outcomes. As McDonald likely can attest, living on the streets is life-threatening. The instability of the situation makes it virtually impossible to receive sustained health care. Housing makes it easier for people to receive preventive medical care and consistent mental health treatment. Finding them homes is the humane thing to do. It makes a world of difference, even for those considered difficult to serve.
It benefits the community. Housing people represents an efficient use of public resources. Few police officers find it rewarding to ticket homeless people for sleeping outside or to arrest someone experiencing a mental health crisis. Emergency rooms are not the place to treat chronic health conditions that could be handled through preventive care. Ending homelessness lets police officers fight real crime. It frees up the ER for medical emergencies. It also allows social workers to coordinate services for someone living in a safe, permanent, affordable home.
While many systems deal with homelessness, few are solving it. In order to help McDonald and the many other chronically homeless individuals and families, we have a huge job ahead. But by doing the right thing and by being prudent with taxpayer dollars, we are headed in the right direction.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman is a member of the Honorary Council for Destination: Home, a public-private partnership that is working to end chronic homelessness in the county. Stacey Murphy, a policy analyst, is a member of the Destination: Home Leadership Board. They wrote this for this newspaper. For more information about the Housing 1000 campaign, go towww.destinationhomesv.org.