Contributor: Benjamin Sumners
When I first met Patrick Sweetman (not his real name), the 42-year-old African American man was homeless and living on the streets of
Pathways to Housing began in
I recently sat with Dr. Robert Keisling, medical director for Pathways to
Patrick’s story is not unlike many of those who participate in Pathways to Housing and other housing first programs around the country. Most of these programs reach out to citizens experiencing long-term homelessness and who are also living with mental illness. In an effort to prevent a return to jail, some programs also take clients with a history of homelessness and mental illness directly upon release from jail. This has a direct and positive effect on law enforcement. A poll of people experiencing long-term homelessness in
As society deals with behaviors related to homelessness by passing prohibitions, law enforcement becomes the de facto agency dealing with homelessness. In addition, these interactions are often negative experiences for the person living with mental illness, making it less likely that they will respond favorably to the police and mental health assistance in the future. Sadly, law enforcement intervention is not a solution to the problem and diverts police attention from public safety, emergencies and other important issues that they have been trained to handle. A goal of social service and mental health programs is to prevent persons livng with mental illness from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.
When housing first or similar mental health housing programs are used, the arrest and police intervention rate for persons who live with mental illness drop significantly. Not only do arrest numbers drop, but the average number of days spent in jail dropped by nearly 40 percent (Culhane, Metraux and Hadley, 2002). According to the Department of Justice (2009), the cost of incarcerating a prisoner in federal prison for one day is $70.94 and community corrections centers $65.43 per day, so a decrease provides a significant savings for the justice system. In addition to less strain on law enforcement and cost reduction, housing first is more successful in keeping people in their homes than the traditional treatment first model. A study of the housing first program in
Participants in housing first programs are not completely free of legal tangles. Dr Keisling. is the first to say that there is no magic bullet. “We usually have people in jail,” he says. “Usually for things like open container, unlawful entry… Those things still happen, but mostly, with our clients, we’ve just begun to engage with and haven’t entered housing yet.” Of course housing alone does not remove many of the issues that landed people on the street to being with. People do not resolve their mental health or substance abuse issues by simply moving into an apartment. Despite some problems though, the evidence is clear that housing people experiencing chronic homelessness and mental illness is not only cost effective, but positively and directly benefits the law enforcement community. Fewer chronically homeless people on the streets means less time occupied by nuisance and quality of life issues and more time to work on community patrolling and responding to emergencies.
Housing first programs are a growing trend. The evidence
To find out more about existing housing first programs in your area or how to start one in your area, find resources from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Benjamin Sumners is an M.S.W. graduate student at
Culhane, D.P., Metraux, S. & Hadley, T.(May, 2001). “The
Culhane, D. P., Metraux, S., & Hadley, T. (2002). “Public service reductions associated with placement of homeless persons with severe mental illness in
Department of Justice. (2009). “Federal register: Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration,” 74, 131 (retrieved from: http://edocket.access. gpo.gov/2009/E9-16304.htm) January 30, 2010.