Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #106. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Apr. 30, 2016; in print May 1

My April column on homelessness concluded this way:  “Next month I will talk about something that is quite counter-intuitive — a win-win scheme that has been tried and proved in cities, counties, and states.  It turns ‘Anybody home?’ into ‘Home, anybody?’  It saves public money and increases social capital.”

What is it that a homeless person lacks? A home.

Obvious, you say. What’s the big deal?

In public policy, what’s obvious isn’t always what’s done.

We assume that getting their lives in order is a precondition for the chronically homeless getting a home. What they lack is the demonstrated righteousness to deserve a home. They’re homeless because they’re not worthy the way we are. Home is a reward, not a right.

But what if that gets it backward?

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which proposes policy and gathers evidence, states the case this way: “Housing First is a proven approach in which people experiencing homelessness are provided with permanent housing directly and with few to no treatment preconditions, behavioral contingencies, or barriers.  It is based on overwhelming evidence that all people experiencing homelessness can achieve stability in permanent housing, regardless of their service needs or challenges, if provided with appropriate levels of services. Study after study has shown that Housing First yields higher housing retention rates, drives significant reductions in the use of crisis services and institutions, and helps people achieve improved health and social outcomes.”

For the chronically homeless — defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition, who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years” — providing a home is the proven solution.

Everybody wins. Everybody. That’s public policy all of us in this fractured political climate can get behind.

Utah is the best-known case for success, and Lloyd Pendleton is its face.

Pendleton was head of humanitarian services for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He identifies as a conservative, who didn’t believe the government should simply give someone a place to live. “I was raised as a cowboy in the west desert, and I have said over the years, ‘You lazy bums, get a job, pull yourself up by the bootstraps.’”

In 2003, Pendleton heard a speaker say that Housing First saves lots of public money. On the return flight Pendleton thought, “If there's any state in the union that can accomplish this, it's the state of Utah.” By 2015, Utah — which charges rent of 30 percent of income or $50 per month, whichever is greater — had reduced the number of chronically homeless in the state by 91 percent, with a savings to the public of $8,000 per year per person.

Counties have tried it, notably Milwaukee. Cities have tried it, notably Denver and — of a size similar to St. Cloud — Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada.

We used to say, “If any state can accomplish something great, it’s Minnesota.” I’d love to see a statewide commitment to Housing First, but what I’m proposing is we make a Central Minnesota pledge to learn more about Housing First. Talk to people and agencies that have tried it, find out what works and what doesn’t. Then, if we have a moment of truth like Pendleton had, we might act. We’re “big enough to make a difference, small enough to make it work.”

It’s certainly not as if nothing is happening. The 2013 St. Cloud Community Housing Study lists a wide range of area institutions serving the homeless, including residential options. I’m asking we explore directly and intentionally what more we might do, given the housing study’s finding that “sufficient capacity appears to exist for permanent supportive housing.”

The day after last month’s column appeared I sent an email to all legislators and candidates in District 14; to the Stearns, Benton and Sherburne county commissioners; to the mayors and City Council members of St. Cloud, Waite Park, St. Joseph, Sartell, Sauk Rapids, St. Augusta and Rockville; and to several CEOs of local nonprofits.

I included URLs for materials about Utah, Milwaukee County, and Medicine Hat.  I said I would be writing this column in May, and that “I would like to be able to say that you agree with me that this is something we need to find out more about.   I want to be able to tell my readers that there are elected officials and other civic leaders in this area who acknowledge the seriousness of homelessness as a public issue and are willing to consider solutions that go beyond what has been tried so far.”

I’m disappointed I didn’t hear from many, but am grateful for those who responded: state Senate candidate Dan Wolgamott; state House candidate Zachary Dorholt; Benton Commissioner Jim McMahon; Waite Park City Council member Chuck Schneider; United Way President Jon Ruis; and Community Giving President Steve Joul.

If you agree that we ought to learn more, please say so to your elected officials.