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Three Ways to Address Homelessness

The billionaire, Marc Benioff and his wife Lynn just made a donation of $30 million to study the problem of homelessness and possible solutions. It was one of the largest grants specifically designed to determine how cities and states can most effectively deploy funds to deal with the problem. Many cities are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the issue and yet making little to no progress. In a previous blog, BCT Partners examined how the reductions in the social safety net within the U.S. are one of the primary causes for more people living on the streets. However, there are other countries that seem to have found solutions that work and there are some lessons that the U.S could learn from their approach.

While the U.S. is not the only Western country dealing with homelessness, Denmark, Canada and Finland have all made remarkable progress in addressing the issue. In fact, Finland has managed to decrease their homeless problem by 35%. So, what exactly is proving to be so successful?

1. Housing First

It is no secret that many people that are homeless have substance abuse problems or suffer from mental illness. Most programs seek to address those problems first before finding a permanent housing solution. Finland has turned that approach on its head by arguing that it is highly unlikely that a person’s life will turn around unless they have a roof over their head first. Canada has taken a similar approach. In the city of Medicine Hat in Alberta, no person goes more than 10 days before the government provides them with permanent housing.

2. Comprehensive Support

In Finland, once people are in permanent housing, support services are available to address everything from employment opportunities, childcare, substance abuse and other social support benefits. Housing is the first step, but in order to provide a more lasting solution, all of the other issues have to be addressed as well. As the African proverb states, “It takes a village” or a collective community effort to create lasting change.

3. Affordable Permanent Housing

Salt Lake City has also adopted the “housing first” philosophy and it’s working. However, the city had to make a commitment to building more affordable housing first and the endeavor had to be a substantial percentage of their budget. Denmark has committed to “allocating about twenty percent of its total housing stock to the public housing sector” according to a report by the University of Maryland. And Finland has eliminated shelters altogether and is concentrating all of its funding on permanent solutions.

Many people will argue that adopting models similar to those in Canada, Denmark or Finland is cost prohibitive. But what is the cost of doing nothing or putting more money towards programs that have failed? As we mentioned earlier, many cities are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars and are not making substantial progress. According to a study conducted in 2015, a chronically homeless person costs the American tax payer an average of $35,578 per year, but costs on average are reduced by 49.5% when people are first placed in supportive housing. Hopefully, we will start seeing policy makers take action and adopt solutions that are proven to work. Without that commitment, this crisis is bound to get worse.

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