Quincy takes 'housing first' approach to homelessness

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From The Beacon, Mass Innovations, June 2007

Quincy is earning recognition – and federal dollars – for its money-saving approach to getting homeless people out of shelters and into permanent housing.

In February, when the city learned that it would be receiving an increase in funding for homeless assistance programs from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Philip Mangano, director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness, described Quincy as a model for other cities its size. Sean Glennon, a research assistant in Quincy’s planning department, says the city has relied on what Mangano terms “legitimate larceny” – taking the best points of other municipalities’ plans and adapting them to fit Quincy’s needs.

The city’s approach, which over three years has reduced the number of emergency shelter beds occupied by the homeless by 56 percent, requires extensive cooperation, with the organizations that run the shelters as well as a range of business and civic leaders. Quincy is also hoping to create a more coordinated approach with nearby cities, as well as a clearer understanding with the Department of Social Services and other agencies who deal with people who may end up in an emergency shelter after being released from state care.

At the core of Quincy’s strategy is the “housing first” model, a departure from the traditional “continuum of care” approach of treating the homeless for psychiatric or substance-abuse problems before moving them into housing of their own. Recent research cited by the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston shows that homeless people who are given housing prior to receiving treatment are much more likely to remain housed five years later than are their counterparts who are required to receive treatment first.

The housing first approach also assumes that in the long run it is much cheaper to provide people with permanent housing than it is to deal with costs associated with chronic homelessness, such as frequent trips to emergency rooms and the inability to hold a job.

The savings potential already has been demonstrated in Quincy, where 33 permanent housing units for the homeless have been established so far. In the spring of 2005, 12 previously homeless women moved into permanent quarters at the newly opened Claremont House. Only two of the women were earning an income at the time, but within six months all 12 of them had jobs. (Residents are expected to contribute at least 30 percent of their income toward the cost of the housing.) And because the women have access to preventive care, rather than needing to be treated at the Quincy Medical Center emergency room, the hospital estimates that it is saving $60,000 a year.

Quincy established a formal 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in part to put the city in better position to obtain federal funding, according to Glennon. The $1.9 million awarded for nine Quincy-area programs in February represented a 17 percent increase over a year earlier – even though homelessness in the city has been on the decline.

Perhaps the most novel and ambitious aspect of Quincy’s 10-year plan is its call for “zero tolerance” of premature discharge of people in the care of state agencies. A person released too early from a detoxification center, for example, may find himself at a homeless shelter, in contact with people who place him at greater risk of suffering a relapse.

The Quincy Leadership Council on Chronic Homelessness, the group of businesspeople, service providers and other civic and municipal leaders that created the 10-year-plan, believes that “we can end homelessness” under a zero tolerance policy, Glennon says. He says a coordinated approach with other cities and towns could help persuade state agencies of the importance of ensuring that they’re not unwittingly contributing to the problem.

“Getting money together to open up a unit for a homeless person is pretty easy,” Glennon says. “It’s stopping people from becoming homeless in the first place – that’s where the real challenge is.”

For more information, contact Sean Glennon at (617) 376-1167.

This monthly column highlights some of the innovative approaches and strategies Massachusetts municipalities are using to deliver services and solve problems. If you know of a Mass Innovation that could be featured in this column, please call the MMA at (800) 882-1498.

Written by MMA Associate Editor Mitch Evich