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Housing homeless? It makes most sense

| November 4, 2010 9:00 PM

Try it sometime: spend the night - or just a few hours - on your driveway in the winter. Pamper yourself; take a sleeping bag and wear a cheap coat. Then see if you can sleep. Area high school students who've tried say they can't.

LCHS students tried and shivered in years past. CHS called theirs "Dare to be Cold," although they're not daring in 2010. So this Saturday Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy will be this year's only Coeur d'Alene area school to spend a full "Night on the Green," complete with boxes for "housing."

Unaffordable housing is the root of growing homelessness. According to a June CNN report of the latest federal HUD survey, one in 200 persons will spend time in a shelter. About 3.5 million Americans per year are homeless.

The recession had a predictable effect. Between 2007 and 2009, homeless families jumped from 131,000 to 170,000. More than half are headed by women under 31 (some fleeing domestic violence), although the number of two-adult families who become homeless has increased. More than half of children in shelters are under age 6.

JUDGING COMES EASY. It's reassuring to believe that all who are homeless did something wrong, or they wouldn't be homeless. If that's not true, any of us could get there, and who wants to admit such a terrifying vulnerability?

I once met a local teenager who lived in her non-working car. Her very ill mother was also homeless. The teen tried to get to CHS every day; she wanted to change her situation. It was tough to manage homework and jobs without transportation, a shower, steady meals, or clean underwear.

However she got that way, such was her start in life. By now she's older than 18, probably not in better shape. An estimated 50,000 youth experience long-term homelessness. At least 300 of them attend schools in Kootenai County. When they become adults, shall we then judge?

According to a 2008 Conference of Mayors study, the three most commonly cited causes for family homelessness are, in order: unaffordable housing, poverty, and unemployment - obviously interrelated. With foreclosures up and jobs down, the increases are unsurprising.

Chronic homelessness remains dominated by single men, whose most common causes include the same three, along with substance abuse (39 percent related to mental illness). About 40 percent of male homeless are veterans, often with service-related mental conditions. Twenty-six percent of all homeless report chronic or serious medical conditions.

WHAT CAN WE DO? All the schools have annual food drives. That's great for immediate aid and youth activism, but we need a long-term solution.

"One goal for me would be to find a student or several young people interested in joining and staying active with our 10-year plan committee. (They) have a lot to contribute." - Coeur d'Alene City Councilmember Mike Kennedy

Kennedy instigated and directs the local 10-year plan to end homelessness, based on a national model with some success in other cities. In line with the model, public and private organizations are part of this coalition. The plan begins with the end in mind: low-cost housing. First, temporary housing for that initial leg up, then planned development of more low-cost apartments to help prevent future homelessness. The plan is a coordinated effort by public and private entities to identify individual needs and the means to address them, such as job training, health care and counseling.

At some point the community will be called on for support. Balking at any taxpayer or charitable support is short-sighted. According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, homeless people spent an average of four days longer per hospital visit ($2,414 more per visit). The added cost comes from complications of homelessness, such as malnutrition and untreated medical conditions. Of course, it's also warm in the ER. It's warm in jail, too - another taxpayer expense. Overnight jail stays are also higher among the nation's homeless population.

Cities which have implemented similar plans found that per-person costs actually go down, even while housing is provided. In Portland, Maine, costs dropped more than 50 percent. One Los Angeles study cited $80,000 in annual city savings while housing just four chronically homeless people.

In other words, compassionate feelings aside, it's cheaper to house the homeless than to let them stay that way.

Sholeh Patrick, J. D., is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who's never spent a night outdoors. E-mail sholehjo@hotmail.com

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