Friday, August 20, 2010
United Way, the city and county of San Diego have teamed up on a new approach to the problem of homelessness that identifies the people on the streets who are most at risk, and gives them a safe place to live, with access to services but no rehab required. What costs are involved when people are left on the streets?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): And this is kind of another interesting one. It just happened. There’s a new plan afoot to help 25 hardcore homeless people. These are chronically homeless people who haven’t gotten off the streets in years and years. It’s going to help them with a place to stay, help for their disabilities, if they want the help, and nutrition. I assume they’re going to get food as well. New York City and Los Angeles have both had such programs so, JW, first of all, what’s the goal of this program? It’s called Project 25.
JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): To save money for taxpayers is the goal, because they believe, and after reading some information on this, they may have something here. Instead of paying for all the visits to the emergency room by the homeless or having the police have to handle it and tying up police officers, why not put them in a room, a safe room, and save that money. I read that the study found that of 15 homeless, San Diegans consumed one and a half million in medical service over a year and a half, and one person alone went to the emergency room 68 times. So they, by taking them off the streets, putting them in these rooms, the hope is they will evolve their lifestyle.
AUGUST: With no pressure to, you know, join the church or any of that.
PENNER: But clarify for me, I mean, put them in a room and keep them there? That sounds like imprisonment to me.
AUGUST: Oh, no, they can come and leave. It’s a small SOR, I mean, a small room. It’s not apparently…
PENNER: Single Occupancy.
AUGUST: …occupancy room.
AUGUST: That’s the ones like that are in Los Angeles. I can’t tell you what the ones are going to be like here. And they can ask for the services or they don’t have to ask for the services. What we have – the motto we have now is they want to get off the streets, they have to go to maybe a religious place, they have to hear the preacher talk a little bit, they got to clean themselves up and they get a meal. And some of them go in there because they need a few days off the street, but it’s not a permanent answer. This does sound – This may be of help because they’re not required to go through any program and when they’re ready to go through the programs. That means they can sit around in that room and drink gin all day if they want to.
PENNER: And not clean themselves up.
AUGUST: Yep, exactly.
PENNER: Alisa, how does this appeal to you?
ALISA JOYCE BARBA (Western Bureau Chief, NPR News): Well, I found this a really interesting program. It’s called a Housing First program which is where they don’t worry about the mental challenges that these people face, they don’t worry about the drug addictions, the alcohol addictions, anything else that’s going on with them. They just get them in housing. And this flies in the face of the way we’ve dealt with the homeless population all across the country for decades really.
BARBA: It’s always been about clean them up first, get them straight. You know, you look at St. Vincent de Paul downtown where they have this wonderful shelter but you have to be clean and you have to be straight to be in that shelter, and the idea is reform – reform you and put you back, you know, in society. This is basically saying there’s a group of people, we’re saying 25 here in San Diego, in Los Angeles, they said 50…
PENNER: And in New York City it was 500.
BARBA: Right. And these are people – and you’ve all seen them. These are people who are not going to give up drinking. These are people who are not going to give up doing drugs. These are people who, frankly, they’re not going to clean themselves up. They’re unclean-uppable and that’s what people who work with the homeless have found, is that there’s chronic homelessness that costs the taxpayer millions of dollars. The money is there. Put them in a room, get them off the streets.
PENNER: But do we know that this actually has saved money in the cities in which they do have these programs? In Los Angeles and New York, has it saved taxpayer money?
DAVID KING (President/CEO, sandiegonewsroom.com): To the extent that you’ve got a homeless person who’s not in jail or not in the hospital and in lieu of that, they are in a homeless shelter, yes, there’s a savings. I can’t quantify it myself but there are a good number of homeless people out there, and this is a good program for calling attention to homelessness, which is a problem we can never look away from or ignore. But there are homeless people out there who will simply not go into a homeless facility. They will not stay in a shelter. They feel trapped in there. There are people, they’re dually diagnosed. They have mental illness and they have substance abuse problems and they simply – even with a bed available, even with a pillow, they will not take it. They will stay – the independence of living on the street, their freedom, there’s just – the mental illness precludes them from wanting to go into a structured environment.
PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. We’re talking about 25 people out of hundreds who are chronically homeless being provided shelter, and if they want it they can have help with their abuse problems, with their mental illnesses, and they don’t have to even clean up to be part of this program. I’d like to know how you feel about that, and we’ll start with Daniel in Clairemont. Daniel, you’re on with the editors.
DANIEL (Caller, Clairemont): Yes, thank you so much for highlighting this yesterday on KPBS. I want to give special kudos to Brian Maienschein for being a former politician who’s stepping up to the plate to help his constituents, his former constituents and all of the city residents by doing this, also to the United Way. This is what we need to do. We have to get these people a chance to get into housing. It’s their option to take it and I don’t know about you but I don’t know anybody who’s on a perfect straight way all the time. You know, if you can raise your hand, raise your hand then but I don’t know of people that are like that. We all have troubles, we all fall a little bit and we need a little help at times.
PENNER: Well, let me tell you one person raised a hand here in the studio, so I thought you should know that. Thank you, Daniel, for your comment. I appreciate that. Brian Maienschein, he heads up United Way these days. He used to be the city councilman from the 5th District, I believe, or the 3rd. I can’t remember exactly which one. And this is a public, philanthropic partnership since it’s United Way, that’s funded by charitable contributions, and then we have the City and County of San Diego as part of it. Let me ask you back again, JW. How prepared are philanthropists for this kind of initiative? I mean, you think of it maybe as a necessity from a civic point of view but what about people who give money to United Way.
PENNER: You know, are they saying to themselves, yeah, this is the way I’d like to have my money spent?
AUGUST: Well, I used to be involved with Life Ministries years ago. Well, it used to be on J Street, or Island, I can’t remember. And I know that the people that gave money then would probably walk out the door if we said something like this because this is not the way it’s done. I’m not giving my money to these people so they can sit around and drink gin all day in a room. But the reality is, I think we’ve found the system as it is isn’t working for everybody. And maybe we do take the hardcore people off the streets and maybe we do give them a chance.
PENNER: It’s only 25 of them, though.
AUGUST: All right, but we start there. You can’t – Baby steps. I mean every time government or even private sector tries to do too much at once, we always screw it up. Let’s start with 25 people. What’s interesting is this is going to move quickly. The Request For Proposal from people that want to do this for the United Way is in early October and they launch the program like Christmas Eve. So it’s not two years out. They’re moving on this and they’re moving quick.
PENNER: Is Brian Maienschein, and, again, we’ve said that he was a politician and he may still have, you know, political blood flowing in his veins and arteries but is he taking a big chance with this, David?
KING: No, I don’t think this is a risk. I think this is a noble cause and I commend him for undertaking them – this task. But I think this’ll be a good public education. I think that you would have to pick out 25 people who want to stay in a shelter, who want to go off the street, in order to do this because there are people out there who just mentally will not go with the idea of staying indoors. They will not go into a shelter.
AUGUST: They’re frightened.
KING: They are.
BARBA: These people are not going into a shelter. They’re being given a room and the big difference is, is any kind of shelter, they have to follow rules. They have to, you know, whether it’s to be clean, to get in at certain hours, hold a job, you know, mop the floors or whatever. This is where all – You’re given a key and you’re given a room. So this gives them the kind of freedom that they’re looking for. And I think back to your question about the politics and Brian Maienschein, you know, what he said, I think, is really telling. He said you just look at the numbers. This saves money. And with the City, the kind of financial crisis everybody is facing, this is an intelligent move for the numbers. I don’t know about whether he sees it as a noble cause or a necessary cause but it seems to me that the numbers just make it work out.
PENNER: What problems—you raise an interesting point—will there be with members of the public who don’t understand providing housing with no requirement that the resident stop drinking or using drugs? What kind of problems? How can you explain this to people?
BARBA: You know, I think that most people’s taxpayer – you know, people’s instincts are that other people need to work in order to get some kind of benefit, the benefit being an apartment. And if you’ve decided to throw your life away and we’re just giving you something for free, I think it kind of flies in the face of many people’s instincts about how it should work. How it should work is the way it works in these other shelters where you earn the right to have a bed here. And if you can’t do that, well, then I think a lot of people think you belong on the street. But it’s costing too much money, that’s the problem.
PENNER: We have time for one more very brief call. Bella from Poway. Bella, if you can make it short, please.
BELLA (Caller, Poway): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
PENNER: Go ahead, please.
BELLA: Okay. Well, basically I just wanted to congratulate for the idea of the Project 25. I know that there is a lot of opposition because we can be a very critical society and thinking that, you know, the homeless, how they deserve to have this benefit if they’re not doing anything for us. But I think that this is a win-win situation because we are going to be savings on tax money by avoiding ER visits. And also we are respecting, you know, the position of all these people that they’re having some hard times and psychological problems and, you know, drug problems that we are not trying to change their habits but we are giving them a way to have some kind of support in our society.
PENNER: Well, thank you very much, Bella. Appreciate your comment. And, JW August, since you raised the whole issue, we’re going to let you have final thoughts on this one.
AUGUST: I’d be prepared for some bad things to come of this once in a while. I mean, it’s – they’re there. They may burn the hotel down, I don’t know. I shouldn’t make fun. But you gotta be prepared. It’s not going to be a bed of roses. So there’s going to be issues because these folks have problems but let’s look at the long term.
PENNER: Actually, the LA program found out that almost all the original outreach workers had crumpled under the pressure and found better paying work and left the program.
AUGUST: Oh, the folks helping the homeless?
PENNER: Right. Yes.
PENNER: So it…
BARBA: But at the same time the LA program found 80% of the people they put in rooms stayed in rooms.
PENNER: Okay, well thank you very much Alisa Joyce Barba, and thank you, JW August, and David King, a great conversation. Thanks to our listeners and our callers. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.