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Wednesday, Jun 13, 2012, 2:55 pm

In L.A., Housing the Homeless Proves Less Expensive Than Criminalizing Them

By Isaac Dalke

The idea behind Project 50 in Los Angeles seems straightforward enough: the simplest way to end homelessness is to give people homes. It turns out to be the cheapest way too.

Begun in 2007 by an alliance of 24 public and private organizations, the program targeted 50 of the most destitute people living on the streets of L.A.’s Skid Row neighborhood. It gave them an apartment and access to comprehensive health and social services. In contrast to many social service programs, the program asked no questions about criminal records, substance use or faith.

On June 6, the County of Los Angeles released the findings of a two-year study of Project 50 that tracked the program’s participants and a group of individuals still on the streets. The participants were arrested less frequently and had fewer visits to the emergency room than non-participants, resulting in savings for the county.  And while the costs of mental health and substance abuse treatment were higher for the participants, those other decreased costs mean the county saved a total of $238,700 over the study period. Yet the key to the program’s success was more than just access to stable housing and services.

“Interviews with participants suggested that having a key to their own home and access to caring staff were equally significant,” the study notes. “These basic improvements led to increased self-esteem, and a feeling that they were no longer living in the shadows.”

Since the first 50 participants were housed in 2008, Project 50 has grown to include programs in Hollywood, Venice Beach, Santa Monica, and Van Nuys. The county is also starting Project 60 to target veterans. “This new assessment of Project 50’s cost-effectiveness shows that it’s time to think even bigger,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who provided significant early political support for the project, wrote in a blog post. He hopes that it can eventually be expanded to serve the estimated 11,000 people who are chronically homeless in L.A.

The success of Project 50 comes in stark contrast with the widespread continuing criminalization of poverty elsewhere in the country, most recently in Denver. On June 4, the city began enforcing an unauthorized camping ban that threatens a fine of up to $999 and a year in jail for sleeping outside in sleeping bags, tents or any other sort of man-made shelter (it’s still okay to sleep in your clothes, provided you aren’t covered by anything that could be a blanket). A 2012 point-in-time study of homelessness in the Denver metropolitan area, undertaken on the night of January 23, estimated that there were 12,605 people in the city living without a home—up more than 1,000 people from the previous year’s study. Of those, 964 people were sleeping on the streets.

Denver already had in place anti-panhandling ordinances, including one passed in 2005 that outlawed sitting or lying on the sidewalk between the hours of 7am and 9pm. That wasn’t enough for some, however, and the mayor and downtown business leaders aggressively pursued the newest regulation.

“The downtown Denver business community sees firsthand the impacts of homelessness, and we care passionately about the battle to end it,” wrote hotel manager Walter Isenberg  and commercial realty broker Evan Makovsky in an April 19 op-ed in the Denver Post, during the height of the debate over the ordinance. “It is neither safe nor civilized for any city to give legal permission for individuals to dwell in places such as sidewalks, alleys and loading docks that were never intended to support daily living activities.”

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a survey of 234 U.S. cities found that over 100 cities prohibit unauthorized public camping in some form. Deemed ‘acts of living laws,’ such policies give individuals criminal records that make it harder for them to access services, get jobs, and find housing. Additionally, the laws do nothing to get at the factors that put those people on the street in the first place.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Justice released a joint report in April condemning laws that persecute homelessness and public forms of poverty. In their stead, the report recommends integrating services, promoting greater collaboration between police and service providers and incorporating recuperative programs and better legal aid into the justice system.

“The people who are experiencing homelessness—the men, women, and families who reside on the street or in public spaces—are not the problem,” the report says flatly, “nor are their behaviors criminal.”

The NLCHP estimates that 3 million people in America experience homelessness in a year. Criminalizing laws mainly serve to move the poorest in our communities out of view, containing and concealing poverty instead of working to improve the lives of those people that are afflicted by it. If Project 50 is any indication, those laws are also the more difficult route.

Isaac Dalke is a summer 2012 In These Times editorial intern.

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