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Researcher Says Ending Chronic Homelessness Is Possible If There's Regional Buy-In

Researcher and consultant Iain De Jong speaks about ending chronic homelessness on November 20, 2014 at Christ Church Cathedral.
Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio

Those who want to help the homeless—whether by offering a hot meal or a temporary bed—should focus instead on trying to find them a permanent home as quickly as possible.

That's what researcher Iain De Jong told about 40 people gathered at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis Thursday for a presentation on ending chronic homelessness.

De Jong heads OrgCode and champions the “housing-first model,” which is something of a buzzword nowadays. De Jong helped run the first ever “housing first” program years back. The idea is to get people in permanent housing and then provide the services needed to keep them there.

DeJong told an audience of service providers, real estate developers and homeless individuals that regions can end chronic homelessness. The way, he said, is to provide two types of permanent housing: rapid re-housing and permanent support housing. Ideally, agencies should move people directly from the streets to permanent housing, avoiding emergency shelters and temporary housing, he said.

“We think about homelessness as an intractable problem because most of what we’ve done to date has been a charitable model of meeting people’s basic needs, which needs to be done, but it doesn’t focus on the solution,” De Jong said.

“The permanent solution to homelessness will always be housing,” he added. “We’re either focusing on getting people housed and helping them stay housed, or we’re actually condemning people to stay homeless forever and we’re actually coming up with an excuse for ourselves as a society to let that happen.”

Officials in St. Louis and St. Louis County included the housing-first model as part of their plan to end chronic homelessness forged ten years ago. Since then, new temporary shelters have opened in St. Louis County, permanent housing has been found for veterans and a permanent supportive housing facility has opened for people with more long-term needs.

But a significant number of homeless people remain in the region. As of 2014, there were 1,354 people without permanent homes in the city and 402 in the county. And those are just the people surveyors were able to find during the federally-mandated annual point-in-time census.

De Jong said that while he cannot speak specifically about St. Louis, two things often prevent housing-first models from being a success: a lack of buy-in from some service providers and a lack of understanding about what housing first really means.

“People like to talk a good game of doing housing first because the evidence shows that it works, but they don’t actually want to invest in learning how to do it. Or they think they do it, but they don’t really do it,” he said. “I mean, even some of the questions I’ve gotten here today are people telling me they deliver a housing-first program, and then they outline a scenario that is very clearly not a housing-first philosophy.”

De Jong said that every agency in the region needs to buy in to the concept of housing first, because permanent housing can be a hard sell for people who have accepted homelessness as their normal state.

“And every decision you make as a homeless person is where am I going to eat today, where am I going to sleep today, where am I going to the restroom, where am I getting a change of clothes. This whole concept of getting housed and getting a job is long gone,” De Jong said.

De Jong says that wherever a homeless person goes for a meal or a bed, the idea that they deserve a permanent home needs to be reinforced.

Pilot Survey Results

De Jong also recommends a universal survey for all agencies so that the region can truly identify who is homeless and what their housing needs are. The survey, called a SPDAT (Service Prioritization Tool), allows agencies to determine who has the greatest need. Like an emergency room, De Jong’s philosophy is that the people who are most vulnerable—those with mental illness and substance abuse problems, for example -- should be housed first.  

Bridge Outreach and the St. Patrick’s Center conducted a pilot survey earlier this year using SPDAT. Over a six-week period in August and September, they talked to 335 people who need housing and found that only 20 percent of those surveyed fell into the highly-vulnerable category requiring permanent supportive housing, such as the newly opened Garfield Commons.  

Irene Agustin with the Bridge Outreach said they conducted the survey because they had encountered barriers in trying to help the people they served get access to permanent housing.

“If you’re not a felon, if you don’t have a substance abuse issue, mental health issue, or you’re not a vet, it was hard to get people engaged in services,” Agustin said, adding that the St. Louis area needs to work on increasing rapid rehousing – which provides more short-term support such as help finding a landlord and aid in paying first and last month’s rent, with the ability to increase services if needed.

The pilot SPDAT results showed that 56 percent of those surveyed need rapid re-housing, while another 25 percent just need help finding affordable housing.

While only 40 people were at Christ Church Cathedral for De Jong’s presentation Thursday, Agustin said she believes St. Louis has the stakeholders to make a full commitment towards making permanent housing the goal for all service-providers.

She said the next step is to educate.

“It’s not going to be an easy road,” Agustin admitted. “We’re going to challenge traditional views; we’re going to challenge different sectors. But it all should be for the sake of having a better community, for helping people who are vulnerable and struggling to get off the streets and into shelter where they’re going to thrive.”

Later in the day, De Jong met specifically with service providers at the main St. Louis Public Library to continue the discussion.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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