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David Langness: If we build it, will they come?

If we build housing for homeless people, will it draw more homeless people to our county?

Let’s start with the facts we know: according to the county’s last Point in Time homeless census, taken on Jan. 24, 2018, Nevada County had 272 homeless persons. The year before, in 2017, the count was 371.

Hospitality House estimates, based on many years of experience, that the real number here in Nevada County is closer to somewhere between 400 to 500 people. With nowhere near enough temporary beds for even half of that number, we clearly have a problem.



No one in our community wants this situation to continue. Regardless of how you feel about homeless people — whether you’re sympathetic or downright angry — you want the issue addressed and solved. Residents, business owners, elected leaders, public health officials, police and fire personnel, and homeless people themselves all agree — we need a way to house the homeless, to move people off the streets and out of the forests into support, shelter and security.

At Hospitality House, for example, of all the 361 people temporarily sheltered in 2017, 97 percent were long-term residents of Nevada County.

That’s why Hospitality House has adopted the “Housing First” philosophy, which basically goes like this: the real solution to homelessness is a home. Seems really logical, right?



This “Housing First” philosophy — an evidence-based, tested policy approach that quickly connects homeless individuals and families to permanent housing — has proven to dramatically reduce and even end homelessness in American communities. It’s proven the most effective and the least expensive way to get homeless people off the streets and into permanent shelter and productive lives. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) endorses Housing First as a best practice for governments and homelessness service agencies in their drive to end chronic homelessness in America.

Cities and counties adopt Housing First because it works. In the past decade, for example, Utah has decreased its homeless population by 72 percent, all by using a Housing First model, finding or building apartments where previously homeless people can live permanently. Utah’s homeless veterans’ population, by the way, has also declined to nearly zero.

In Massachusetts, a 2015 report found that after the state adopted Housing First, it saved taxpayers $9,339 for every homeless person that it helped house.

The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness found that a Housing First approach presents average costs of $10,000 per person per year — while leaving that person homeless costs law enforcement, jails, hospitals, and other community services $31,000 per person per year.

Yes, this is a hard issue, but here’s the essential question: would we rather have homeless people living on our streets and in our forests — or living in a setting where they can get off the streets, get help and potentially recover from economic and personal challenges? The Housing First approach offers a proven pathway to health and sobriety, lowers crime, gets people off the street and housed, reduces potential harm to all, makes everyone safer and happier, and has proven more cost-effective for communities and taxpayers.

So with that data in mind, let’s address the original question: If we build more homelessness services, will those services draw more homeless people to Nevada County?

Judging from the long-term evidence, the answer is a resounding no. Multiple research studies show that homeless people don’t often migrate, and that those who do move to new areas because they’re searching for work, have family there, or for other reasons completely unrelated to the availability of services. In a national study, the Veterans Administration found that homeless in-migration roughly balanced out-migration — with no increase in homeless populations for places with more services.

The data consistently shows that homelessness is a localized problem, not one caused by in-migration. At Hospitality House, for example, of all the 361 people temporarily sheltered in 2017, 97 percent were long-term residents of Nevada County. A recent national study showed that 75 percent of homeless people in the U.S. still live in the place where they became homeless.

Maybe that’s why the terms “transient” or “drifter” sound so wrong — because they don’t describe the reality of the situation.

To sum up the answer to that “if we build it, will they come?” question, here’s a hard fact: no American city or county on record that has built housing for its homeless population in recent years has seen an increase in that population — in fact, the exact opposite is true.

The communities that have forthrightly tackled this pressing issue with a Housing First approach have seen significant reductions in the number of people on their streets. We can do the same here.

David Langness, a retired Kaiser Permanente health care executive, co-founded and served for 25 years on the board of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, one of the largest service agencies on Skid Row. He and his wife Teresa live in Grass Valley.


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