Redding Record Searchlight: Housing First - Op Ed

Redding Record Searchlight / Speak Your Piece
September 21, 2015

Douglas McMullin, MD : Letters to leaders

These thoughts on alternative homeless solutions have been shared with Redding Councilwoman Kristen Schreder and the Shasta County Board of Supervisors:

“I am excited to see directions investigated that can actually change the homeless problem and see success — rather than the bickering and antagonism that is too often prevalent. I would love to become involved in a productive housing direction for these folks.

“They are my patients. After 20 years in a suburban family practice, I left and came to Shasta Community Health Center in 2013. It has been a great experience and truly opened my eyes to the composition of the “homeless.” Too often, we generalize and stereotype based on our limited experiences — leading us to reflex solutions that will never work. Currently Redding has “swept” its homeless from one end of town to the other — and somehow this is supposed to be helpful. Some have even suggested that services promote homelessness. I would like to see that study — the one that shows a reduction of homelessness when medical care, food and water are withheld. It does not exist.

“With a case worker, a nurse and a student it is my opportunity to hike to the homeless camps in our area to provide medical care. Diabetes, cancer, schizophrenia, broken bones, ulcers — it’s all there. Average life expectancy on the street is 45 years. Our case worker is overwhelmed as we pursue connecting these folks to services to, yes, get them off the street.

“When one takes the time to “hear the story” of an individual, that homeless “dirty person” becomes an individual — a daughter, father, sister, etc. They are typically “broken” in some fashion. Without hope, and with constant barriers to “getting yourself out of this,” they remain in the bushes or the alley with little leverage to change their situation. Most I have encountered would like to do so.

“As you are perhaps aware, Housing First programs across the country are making drastic inroads into this problem:

  • A 2006 study in Denver found that, after Housing First was adopted, emergency room costs went down 34%; hospital costs were down 66%; incarceration costs were down 76%. After two years 77% of those in the program were still in housing. 
  • A 2009 Seattle study found that in the first six months of Housing First programs, savings of $2,500 per person per month were realized in health and social services
  • Salt Lake City has experienced a 91% reduction in homelessness! Clients pay $50 per month or 30% of their income for their homes.

“Proper organization and case management are essential for success. I was thrilled to hear Schreder talking about Chico and what they are doing.

“All sides of the aisle would agree that we would like to:

  1. Clean up our community
  2. Save money
  3. Help somebody

“The Utah program has especially been successful in all of these areas. I cannot imagine anyone would not be in favor of these outcomes that housing first, intensively managed, can bring.

“I am hopeful that we will be wise enough to recognize a higher road and a more cost effective solution. We need a discussion that approaches real solutions. We are spending the community’s money on incarceration, law enforcement runs, hospital and ER expenses. The Utah study estimates $20,000 is spent on each homeless person per year for costs like that. It’s safe to say that’s what we are doing.

“There is a cheaper and much more effective solution.”

Dr. McMullin is a physician at Shasta Community Health Center.

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