Last week, in a major victory for ending homelessness, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved the development of a $1.2 million dollar pilot program to provide housing vouchers for chronically homeless individuals and families identified by groups like Housing 1000 – a remarkable Santa Clara County organization participating in the 100,000 Homes Campaign. The initiative establishes a bold new template for other counties looking to save money and end homelessness at the same time.
The Board of Supervisors voted to develop a 12-month pilot program that will provide 100 housing vouchers. An additional 25 vouchers will be provided for individuals being released from state prison or county jail with newly available state funding.
The program adds to Santa Clara County’s growing reputation for identifying innovative funding sources to house homeless residents. Last June, the region tapped money
from the Environmental Protection Agency to move homeless people into permanent housing while also cleaning up local waterways.
A 2011 County homeless census and survey tallied 2,520 chronically homeless people living in Santa Clara County. That number represents a huge public health emergency and a major burden on public tax dollars. In a hopeful sign for other countries, the Board of Supervisors recognized an opportunity for creative solutions.
A 2009 Seattle study
published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a group of homeless individuals who regularly abused alcohol incurred public costs of more than $40,000 per person annually through visits to jails, shelters and emergency rooms. Paying to house them produced a taxpayer savings of well over 50% and helped reduce their drinking. A Chicago study
published in the Journal of Health Services Research this past November found a public savings of nearly $1 million for every group of 100 chronically homeless individuals provided with permanent supportive housing.
As Housing 1000’s Jennifer Loving explained, "People think that the guy living under the bridge doesn't cost us anything, so we should just leave him there. But if he has the flu and falls down in the street, then the police will call an ambulance to take him to the emergency room."
The costs, Loving noted, add up.
With housing options through the Housing Authority’s Section 8 housing vouchers in decline across the country, Santa Clara County’s pilot program is a positive local step in a national effort to end homelessness and reduce taxpayer costs by providing stable, permanent housing and support services.
“It's the right thing to do, and it's fiscally responsible," said Republican County Supervisor Mike Wasserman. "There's not a whole lot of things like that."
The county's goal is to implement the program by April 2012, helping 125 people escape the streets and establishing a new model for counties across the country looking to get serious about ending homelessness.
If we’re serious about ending homelessness in America, we need to help more counties and local governments adopt smart, commonsense plans like the new voucher program in Santa Clara County. At a time when local budgets are tight, the potential for cost savings is enormous, and as municipalities eye the federal target of ending chronic homelessness in 2015, such programs offer a bold and practical path forward.
But perhaps most importantly, programs like the one in Santa Clara County assure that thousands of our homeless neighbors, many of whom are literally dying on our streets, will have access to the housing and basic supports they need to move permanently inside and reclaim their lives.