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Doing nothing is not an option

Nancy Baglietto
Special to The Union

Nancy Baglietto

As I write this month’s column, a curtain of rain flows over the gutters and into the ever-widening pool in the parking lot. Bits of snow still linger in piles by the side of the road. I’m haunted by the truth: men and women, families with young children, veterans, the mentally ill — our neighbors — are hunkered down out there in the cold wind and the wet mud. Some make it into Hospitality House, the only emergency shelter in Nevada County. Some live in cars, some crowd in with friends. And some, tragically, are living out under a tarp or a tree, even on the coldest nights. You’ve seen them — we all have.

In Nevada County, as in the rest of the country, an increasing number of people are trying to survive without permanent housing, and in some cases without shelter at all. We cannot simply ignore this issue, hoping it will go away. These are our friends, our daughters, our veterans. They deserve better. Pointing fingers or placing blame doesn’t get people out of crisis. The problem is growing, and it’s impacting our neighborhoods, our communities, our pocketbooks. Doing nothing is not an option.

Over these past few months, you’ve read about county proposals to utilize state funds, as well as the “No Place Like Home” grant, to build housing for veterans, homeless families and the mentally ill. We’ve also discussed Housing First, the homelessness solution which argues that permanent, non-conditional housing must be available in order for all of the other interventions to succeed. Over 20 years of studies focusing on Housing First have shown repeated success.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness suggests Housing First approaches reduce the costs of emergency services by over $30,000, and shelter costs by over $20,000 per person housed. Recent stories showcasing rural Vermont, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, rural Canada, New Jersey and many other regions provide ample evidence. Visit our website (hhshelter.org) for more facts and statistics about this exciting program.

Many of you have questions: Are we really planning on giving houses away? Just like that? Is that fair? Isn’t it too expensive? There are, of course, no simple answers, but I think it’s helpful to explore a bit.

Housing First doesn’t mean a three-bedroom, two-bath in the suburbs, handed out rent free. For some, it looks like a few weeks or months to re-group. For others, it’s called “permanent transitional,” meaning rental assistance on a small unit.

Whether people end up in a home for a few months or a few years, the Housing First model includes immediate, extensive support. People are not simply given the keys to the front door and a congratulatory handshake. Instead, residents receive appropriate medical care, including medication assistance, management for long-term conditions, counseling for mental health and addiction issues. They have access to transportation, job training programs, MediCare, social security and disability services. Kids can ride the school bus to the neighborhood school. These housing facilities often have on-site Day Services Centers, so residents are never far from the supportive resources they need to rebuild their health or credit, or to bring some order into lives made chaotic by circumstances.

When we say housing, we sometimes forget an important distinction: the difference between a house and a home. Our goal is to provide stable environments — warm, safe places to heal. Size, location, number of roommates — these are important considerations, of course, but first and foremost we want residents to feel secure and stable. Being homeless is an extraordinarily stressful experience, profoundly affecting both physical and mental health. It takes time to recover from the perpetual anxiety over bad weather, getting enough food, finding a bathroom. A few months of services, plus a chance to go to work regularly, usually provide enough support for folks to get back on their feet and move on, often to their own apartments or houses. Folks with chronic illnesses, both mental and physical, may need supportive services for the rest of their lives.

Sound expensive? It can be, but by utilizing the principles of Housing First with extensive wraparound services, costs have shown to decrease. Time and time again studies show that the cost of taxpayer-funded services such as emergency room care and extra policing are reduced when homeless people are transitioned into stable environments without preconditions. Housing First programs are much cheaper than doing nothing at all. And as we’ve said before, and will continue to say: doing nothing is not an option.

With time, with help, with love, a house becomes a home, filled with hope and promise.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments at executivedirector@hhshelter.org.

Nancy Baglietto currently serves as executive director for Hospitality House.

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