Consultant Erin Healy is challenging the Coulee Region to shoot for the moon to end homelessness, with down-to-earth collaboration to harness the resources of governmental, social service, religious and other agencies already engaged in the quest.
“You have substantive experts here on homelessness,” Healy told about 100 people, including mostly members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, as well as representatives of community and governmental agencies, at St. Rose Convent in La Crosse Tuesday.
“I am here to provide catalytic space for innovation to happen” to staunch the bleeding of human and financial capital that homelessness causes, said Healy, who has been involved in efforts to eliminate hunger for a decade and was one of the key players in the 100,000 Homes Project that secured housing for 105,580 formerly homeless people across the country between 2010 and 2014.
“Falling into homelessness has a corrosive physical and mental effect that is rapid,” said Healy, whose private consulting firm is in Brooklyn, N.Y.
She cited people who obtained housing through the 100,000 Homes Project as examples of “literally the rebirth of a human being when people thought they never would make it.”
One was Ed, a chronic alcoholic who looked like death warmed over in a picture taken when project staffers first found him on the streets of Los Angeles. Within a year after obtaining housing and supportive services, he was a new man, healthy, smiling and willing to help others.
Another was Laura, who was addicted and homeless in Times Square in New York. After being provided with housing and support services, she became a concessions manager at a movie theater in Times Square, Healy said.
Healy’s visit, with the working title “A La Crosse Collaboration to END Homelessness,” is being sponsored by Gundersen Health System’s new Population Health and Strategy Department. Gundersen established the department in part on the philosophy that safe, secure housing is essential to the health of families and, by extension, the community’s overall health.
She outlined four guiding principles intended to foster “unprecedented collaboration” among agencies instead of parallel efforts that she said often perpetuate the problem rather than solving it:
Housing first: The quest to provide housing for people who need it most, such as those who are chronic alcoholics or are beset with mental health problems, helps provide the stability for them to be able to address those other issues.
“People get better when they have housing,” Healy said.
Prevention and rapid re-housing — When someone encounters unforeseen circumstances such as a car repair cost that affects their ability to pay rent or the loss of a job, he or she may need assistance to bridge the cost or a job connection to prevent housing loss or restore housing.
Coordinated entry : This involves providing a single path to housing and services, which Healy said Couleecap does an excellent job of doing, so that services aren’t duplicated, increasing costs for all agencies.
“We need to know people’s names” to coordinate services so someone isn’t going to five agencies, she said.
Know your data: The project will conjoin names, needs, statistics and other information to be able to measure progress and assess where improvements are needed.
Human nature sometimes impedes efforts to defeat homelessness, Healy said.
“We don’t like paying somebody’s rent in this country, even if it costs five times as much to provide services” when someone is homeless, she said.
“Solving people’s homelessness by getting them into housing is three to four times cheaper,” she said, citing a Los Angeles study as an example.
The study found that physical and mental health care, treating substance abuse, police department contact and other costs totaled $63,000 a year per homeless person in public funds, compared with just $16,000 a year for services to someone living in supportive housing, she said.
Generally, people with high needs make up a small percentage of people who are homeless, usually 10 to 20 percent, but their needs are so great that they take up 80 percent of the resources, she said.
Assessing needs and addressing the most severe cases at the outset will reduce that burden, both saving money and allowing more services for others.
Handling some issues, such as chronic alcoholism, often requires novel approaches, Healy said.
She pointed to a Seattle Housing First program nicknamed “wet housing” that provided apartments for alcoholics even when they continued drinking, unlike most programs that demand sobriety first.
Lifting the requirement helped attract participants who simply didn’t want to abide by that rule, she said. It also debunks the myth that people want to be homeless, when they actually are trying to maintain a semblance of freedom.
The result, as chronicled in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was that the program saved $2 million in public costs for things such as health care and public services during its first two years.
“The solution for individuals is a solution for public sector dollars,” she said, making it a “both-sides-of-the-aisle issue about wasting money.”
What’s more, the support services to the tenants also helped them cut back on their drinking, Healy said, adding, “If I was living on a bench, I’d probably be drinking, too.”
Cities involved in the 100,000 Homes Project, including New Orleans, Nashville, Phoenix and more than 100 others, were able to double accommodations for homeless people by reshuffling existing resources, not creating new funding, she said.
Healy is meeting almost nonstop with public, private and nonprofit officials, agencies and organizations during her five-day visit, including the La Crosse County Board on Monday night and City Council on Tuesday night.
During a meeting with Mayor Tim Kabat and police, parks and planning officials Tuesday, she stressed the fact that it is cheaper to provide housing than services, despite challenges.
Kabat expressed dismay at the lack of state support to address homelessness compared with Minnesota, as the Wisconsin State Journal is chronicling this week. Although state officials say they provide tens of millions in support, the WSJ quotes the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness, local officials and providers as disputing that, saying little is targeted at needs.
The Badger State’s direct funding to meet homeless needs is about $3.3 million, they say, compared with the Gopher State’s $44.3 million.
“There is no help coming from Madison at all. It’s very, very frustrating on the local level,” Kabat said.
He expressed relief that others have been able to make inroads on existing resources, adding, “We’re not going to have a lot of new resources.”
Sandy Brekke, director of the St. Clare Health Mission in La Crosse and one of the driving forces, along with Gundersen and the FSPAs, behind Healy’s appearances, said, “It takes changing the culture. The trend is definitely toward philanthropy away from charity, helping vs. harming.”
To that end, the campaign will endeavor to enlist businesses and foundations for funding assistance.
Healy is a taskmaster, often challenging cities to set firm goals with a target of accomplishing them within 100 days.
New Orleans rose to the occasion, she said, meeting goals and setting new ones. It ended veteran homelessness in January 2015, aims to halt family homelessness by Thanksgiving, erase chronic homelessness by 2017 and eliminate youth homelessness by 2019, she said.
When Kabat voiced the city’s goal of finding housing for 80 homeless vets in the city, Healy said it very well could be done by Thanksgiving — and certainly by Christmas.
After huddling with the various stakeholders again today, Healy will present the issue during a public meeting from 9 to 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Rose Convent at 701 Market St. She will spend Thursday afternoon compiling recommendations and present them to leaders Friday.
In working with communities, she said, “I push them with high enough goals so they have a pit in their stomach. If you don’t have a pit in your stomach, you don’t have a high enough goal.
“The time pressure — the urgency — releases innovation,” she said.