The cost of homelessness
Millions are being spent to end homelessness in Atlanta- but is it enough?
No value assignedEditor's note: Homelessness isn't a new problem plaguing Atlanta far from it, in fact. Just think about the fact that more than 20 years ago, homeless residents were issued one-way bus tickets out of the city ahead of the 1996 Olympics. Recent events, however, have pushed the issue further into the spotlight. Consider, for example, the now-infamous fire that engulfed a portion of 1-85 allegedly started by homeless man Basil Eleby, and recent conflicts between homeless people and some business owners on Edgewood Avenue (which Creative Loafing reported on in our May 25 issue). Those instances put an exclamation point on a social ill that sometimes appears never-ending and it's one that CL plans to devote more ink and resources to in 2017.This week, following up on our piece last month about the "Fight for Edgewood,? writer Camille Pendley examines the money and tactics being utilized by agencies and organizations in the city to tackle homelessness.Then on June 21, we're teaming up with the folks at the Center for Civic Innovation for a new edition of the Social Studies discussion series to further explore issues of homelessness and gentrification. The event, taking place at CCI (115 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. S.W.) 6-8:30 p.m., is free, but you've got to register: bit.ly/SocialStudiesjune. Join us there, and stay tuned for more coverage in print and online. We plan on revisiting this topic again soon and often.Earlier this year at the State of the City Business Breakfast, Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the United Way of Greater Atlanta would match a $25 million contribution from the City to "make homelessness brief and rare." The $50 million is in addition to $7 million Atlanta received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last December.That spending is not outrageous relative to other cities: Los Angeles spends $100 million a year, and Seattle, with half the metro population of Atlanta's, is looking to raise $275 million over the next five years. But when you consider that the largest homeless shelters in Atlanta don't fall within this budget, there is a lot more than $57 million allocated to homelessness in this city. And with recent changes in thinking about how best to reduce homelessness away from a focus on short-term, emergency shelter and toward connecting people to the longer-term solution of their own housing there's a tension between the old and new ways of using these much-needed resources.At the same event where the mayor announced the match grant, speakers were asked whether the money was related to the City's desire to close the Peachtree-Pine shelter. The question was avoided. Jack Hardin, the co-chair of United Way's Regional Commission on Homelessness, answered only that the grant "will include some small, low-barrier and low-impact shelters," according to the Saporta Report, hinting at an alternative to the existing 100,000-square-foot building that's been said to sleep as many as 700 people in a night. The city government's coordinating body on homelessness, the Continuum of Care (CoC), meets regularly with major shelters, at least to keep communication on activities going. But the hard numbers speak for themselves: Of the HUD money that goes to emergency shelters through the CoC, between $1.77 million and $1.87 million in 2016**, only $20,000 of it is going directly to what we've long thought of as some of our major homeless service providers Atlanta Mission, City of Refuge, Salvation Army and Peachtree-Pine (run by the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless). This isn't the way it's always been. As recently as 2007, three of the four received hefty funding from HUD. Now there's only one: Salvation Army, which receives $20,000, a fraction of its $4 million budget.Together these four shelters provide beds for roughly 2,000 of the estimated 4,000-plus population of people experiencing homelessness in Atlanta. (Though some say this population is closer to 7,000.) And now the city is looking to close Peachtree-Pine, the single largest provider of beds that's accessible to all homeless people no matter their income, addiction, sobriety or time of arrival.No value assignedThe future of Atlanta's sheltersThese long-standing shelters all faith-based, with the exception of Peachtree-Pine have been around for at least 20 years and operate largely without government money. Instead, these organizations get most of their funding from churches, nonprofits and private donations. Combined, the shelters have assets (buildings, equipment, etc.) totaling $55 million and operate on more than $25 million annually, according to the most recent tax forms available. Atlanta Mission, around for nearly 80 years, has $40 million in assets and had an operating budget of $16 million last year.*The federal approach to ending homelessness has for years been shifting to a focus on connecting people to their own housing as quickly as possible called the "housing first" model rather than investing in short-term solutions like emergency shelter and transitional housing. With it, the approach of Atlanta's Continuum of Care has shifted to align with federal funding.It's no secret among providers that the housing first model does not match up easily with what we've been doing in Atlanta to offer people help. Housing first means that for a person to access a program, they do not need to be sober, complete any certain treatment, participate in any particular programs, have any income or money to pay, or have a clean criminal record. And all providers under the housing first model must prioritize connecting people to housing quickly, getting them into their own space as soon as possible rather than making them jump through hoops beforehand.There have been numerous studies on this approach, some conducted by HUD, concluding that housing first offers more sustainable solutions for the individual (or family) and saves money otherwise publicly spent on emergency room visits, jail time, detox treatment and shelters. Utah even claims to have reduced its chronic homelessness population by more than 90 percent by focusing on this linkage to housing.In 2013, there were public costs of $347,000 on homeless misdemeanor arrests, $1.8 million on jail stays, $24 million on ER visits and $37 million on in-patient treatment.A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a group of business leaders based Downtown, has a stake in addressing this problem "for the brand of Atlanta" and is behind housing first. "I think it makes a lot more sense to try to take care of someone completely with housing and services as opposed to haphazardly trying to feed and shelter them," he says, saying the latter is a temporary solution.The CoC's current priority is providing permanent supportive housing to people who are chronically homeless, many of whom are likely to have severe needs related to mental illness or substance abuse. Cathryn Marchman, who runs the CoC, says they're shooting to have 1,000 units ready over the next fve years, adding: "A PSH pipeline committee with key stakeholders will be created to determine how and where these units will be created." "Housing first is, ???Hey let's get you into your own apartment, with your own key in your hand, period. Where you'll have a case manager who will come by,'" says Brad Schweers, executive director of Intown Collaborative Ministries; the key difference being the lack of requirement to meet any conditions on the recipient's part. "???We encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities for recovery. But none of those are required.'?"Most people experiencing chronic homelessness, just the idea of being up at 5 a.m., this kind of rigid schedule, it rarely works," adds Schweers, who says his organization recently helped two people who had been living on the street for more than 15 years get into permanent supportive housing using the housing first approach.No value assigned"Imagine living in a dorm with 30 to 40 folks," says Seth Lingenfelter of City of Refuge, describing an emergency shelter setting. "There's just a lot of triggers for those who have that behavioral health piece, and there's very little chance of them making it." Lingenfelter calls providing permanent supportive housing under housing first a "good and well-thought out plan" but says it's not what's needed for the 80 to 90 percent of people who can get a job but just need a place to sleep at low or no cost. "There's just not enough places out there.?Marchman hopes that will soon change. "Any new shelter beds created and/or supported by the City will be low-barrier," she says. But currently, most of the major shelters still have a multitude of barriers standing in the way for people who need help."They've got a lot of rules at the Atlanta Mission," says Barry, who is currently homeless and didn't want to give his last name. Barry was born in East Lake Meadows. "There's no bookbags allowed in the sleeping areas, you've got to go through metal detectors, they still frisk your person, there's no cigarettes allowed.?Like all of the shelters, with the exception of Peachtree-Pine, guests must appear sober, they may be drug-tested (including for alcohol) and they cannot use alcohol, drugs or cigarettes on facility grounds.In order to get a bed at Atlanta Mission, men must be there by curfew: 3 p.m. (The curfew for women varies.) Some said that early deadline forced them to sleep outside or on a train because they chose instead to work that day and so they wouldn't make it to the shelter in time.At Salvation Army, there are both free beds and beds that require proof of income. A bed might cost as little as $7 or $8 per night, but it's still out of reach for someone who isn't working. The free beds are first come, first served and are "gone by 8:10" in the morning, says Kevin Hall, a program manager there.City of Refuge, which offers a range of supportive services, including health care, implements a curfew of 7 or 9 p.m., depending on whether it's a weekday or weekend. Like Atlanta Mission's women's program, City of Refuge also requires that clients make progress on a plan developed with a case manager that could include financial, social, professional or personal goals."That's the total opposite of what I experienced at Peachtree-Pine," Barry says, referring to the total lack of rules like the ones he found at other shelters.Some found the flexibility at Peachtree-Pine disconcerting. "I've heard too many crazy stories about that place," says Dimerey, who did not want to give his last name but sometimes opts to sleep outside rather than in a bed at the shelter. Others reported feeling unsafe, having their essential possessions (like birth certificates and cell phones) stolen and being uncomfortable with the sleeping arrangements.Still, despite its flaws, Peachtree-Pine is the lowest-barrier shelter in Atlanta, so in some respects it's surprising that the City has expressed interest in closing it down.Chris Purvis has been homeless off and on for 20 years, so he's familiar with the options for help in Atlanta. Purvis says he tried different places, but nothing was long-term enough. "They've got different programs, but there's a waiting list," he says. "Peachtree-Pine, they opened their doors for me. When I get off work, I ain't got to worry about waiting or there ain't enough room. As far as having somewhere to lay your head, I give them an A+.?No value assignedThe realities of housing firstThere's no question that emergency shelter and transitional housing are needed, but housing first supporters argue those options aren't the best fit for most people experiencing homelessness."Transitional housing is a good intervention for domestic violence, substance abuse and youth," Marchman says. She also notes that a "comprehensive gaps analysis revealed a need for additional low-barrier emergency shelter capacity housing." But according to the city's HUD consolidated plan, its objective even through the use of emergency shelters is to "assist homeless persons to move towards stable, economically sustainable, long-term housing as rapidly as possible.?Not everyone's convinced it's that simple. "Our residents, if they were just placed in a home, if they didn't have case management, I don't see there being as much success with that," Lingenfelter says. "Yeah, there's a lot out there that say, ???Yeah, being in the system jacks things up,' and to that I'd say: Look, you can't undo all those years, decades, in a matter of two months.?One program he oversees at City of Refuge allows women to stay up to six months while they receive regular case management and are required to participate in supportive services catered to their needs that could include legal counsel, financial literacy classes, health care from a clinic "on campus," after-school programming for their kids and more. "We're not just a shelter. We're a housing program. ??_ You don't just check in and check out. The only way a relationship can be established is if we share and they share," Lingenfelter says.For some at City of Refuge, a six-month-long program doesn't do the trick. Lingenfelter estimates that about 20 percent of their clients come back for help, even after the year they have to wait before they can receive services again. Kevin Hall, program director for the Salvation Army, estimates a quarter of their clients return after completing transitional programs.For its part, the CoC recognizes the major obstacles to changing from old ways of helping people experiencing homelessness. For one, the housing first model means that permanent supportive housing should include case management, but first the capacity and services have to be available for a case manager to offer. As it stands, substance abuse and mental health treatment options are too few, underfunded and overstretched."There is nowhere near enough assistance out there for substance abuse and behavioral health," says Lingenfelter, noting that a person may be on a waitlist for a month or a year and in the meantime likely needs a place to live.The CoC recognized that "Atlanta has a large unsheltered population, at 1,775 persons in 2013, with high levels of substance addictions," in the HUD consolidated plan. And, while there are not enough shelter beds available in general, "shelter options are very limited for severely mentally ill persons, almost nonexistent for active substance abusers.?It then acknowledges decreased funding for such services "due to county budget cuts" and the CoC's own defunding of programs that only offer supportive services.No value assignedAtlanta received a U.S. Department of Health grant for $2.4 million last year, and Marchman says this money will be spent to increase outreach to homeless people and behavioral health services for the chronically homeless. Outside of this, Marchman looks hopefully to Medicaid expansion or a Medicaid waiver program for ways to increase available care. Right now, she says, the CoC and its partners "remain limited by lack of sustainable revenue streams to support increases in behavioral health services for the uninsured.?The biggest barrier for Atlanta to adopt a housing first approach? The "housing" part. We don't have enough of it that's affordable, Marchman says. And what's "affordable" varies in definition: Typically assessed as 30-50 percent of area median income, Anita Beaty, executive director the Task Force for the Homeless, argues we should really use 30-50 percent of minimum wage, since that's closer to what someone would make, at least to start. The average one-bedroom in Atlanta goes for more than $1,300. Finding affordable housing is one thing living there is another.
"It's hardest in low-rent housing for people with a drug background," says Hall. "The dope boys thrive on those in recovery.?* UPDATE: An earlier version of this story reported Atlanta Mission's assets as its budget. ** We originally cited the specified HUD funds at $7 million, but revised it to $1.77 million-$1.87 million.