This Critical Step Could Keep Homeless People With Mental Illness Off The Streets

Happy homeless african american man outdoors during the day.
Happy homeless african american man outdoors during the day.

It's becoming more and more clear: Providing homeless people with housing first and foremost is vital in getting them off the streets for good.

A new study that examined nearly 1,200 homeless individuals who have a mental illness in Canada is building on evidence that the "housing first" model is more successful in combating the issue than other methods.

The approach, which prioritizes providing homeless people with stable shelter first and then addressing health and employment issues after, was backed by the White House as an "evidence-based strategy" last summer.

The study, executed by researchers in Toronto over a two-year period, looked at two groups of homeless people with mental illness -- one (the "intervention" group) was given rent supplements to access stable housing, as well as provided with case management services, while the other (or "usual care" group) only had access to existing housing and support services in their communities.

In all four cities that the study was conducted -- Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg -- the intervention groups were in stable housing a significantly higher portion of time throughout the study period than their usual care counterparts. In Study City B (the sites did not want to be individually identified and were therefore referred to by letter in the report), participants in the intervention group were in stable housing 73.2 percent of the time, while usual care participants were in stable housing just 23.6 percent of the time.

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"Housing first is not housing only. It is housing with support," Vicky Stergiopoulos of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and lead author of the study told the Washington Post. "And a lot of the individuals, or most of them, would not be able to keep their housing without support."

The study examined participants between October 2009 and July 2011, and was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Tuesday.

The "housing first" model has a proven track record of success in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Utah -- a state that has reduced its chronic homelessness rate by 72 percent over a decade.

Officials in Camden, New Jersey, announced last month that a "housing first" model would be implemented throughout the county. Using federal funds, the program aims to house 50 people throughout the next two years.

Participants -- who will be identified by local health care providers that routinely see them in need of medical services -- will have their rental costs covered either partially or entirely through public funding.

Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, chief executive officer of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers -- a partner in the initiative -- said not only will the approach work for New Jersey residents, but it'll benefit the community financially, too.

"It saves money in the long run, because [homeless people are] not in hospitals and emergency rooms, and they're not in jail -- all of which takes up a lot of resources," Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, chief executive officer of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers -- a partner in the initiative -- told the South Jersey Times. "A lot of these people are re-admitted to [Cooper University Hospital] over and over again, in the emergency room, for things that you wouldn't need to be in the hospital for, if you had a place to live."

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