Why do we wait?

How Bridge House is preventing chronic homelessness

by Isabel McDevitt, Bridge House CEO


In the mid-nineties cities across the country developed 10 year plans to end homelessness.  The cornerstone of each plan consisted of a “Housing First” approach and the development of Permanent Supportive Housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “’Housing First’ is a recovery-oriented approach to ending homelessness that centers on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent housing and then providing additional supports and services as needed.”

This approach is predicated on the analysis that it is more cost effective to move someone from the streets into housing and pay their rent to live in an apartment for the rest of his or her life than to provide shelter or other services. Permanent Supportive Housing units – the units needed for Housing First – are built with and funded by the government resources in perpetuity.

Sounds humane and economically sound, right? Yes. Unfortunately, this approach is only viable for approximately 25% of adults experiencing homelessness based on economics and eligibility criteria set by HUD.

We must ask, what about the other 75% of people experiencing homelessness? What about those who are not yet chronically homeless. What about those who have the ability to get back into mainstream housing but just need a break?

Don’t get me wrong, communities need Housing First and Permanent Supportive Housing. Communities need a mindset that recognizes housing stability is fundamental for people to successfully transition out of homelessness. However, we can’t assume, as many cities have done for the past two decades, that this one intervention will be enough.  With the cost of building a unit at more than $400,000 and the fierce competition for land and NIMBY-ism in most cities, Permanent Supportive Housing development is neither quick nor easy, and sometimes, and not economically viable in many areas.

So what’s the answer? How can we address homelessness with answers for 100% of people who find themselves on the streets not just the 25%?

Communities need to have a diverse and dynamic tool kit of approaches to address homelessness. We need to have a quick and effective way to identify the needs of people experiencing homelessness as well as their capabilities and existing resources in order to match them to right intervention and help them end their homelessness. In the majority of cases, 75% – these individuals will need opportunity-based, short-term supports to resolve their circumstance of homelessness. Put simply – we cannot expect to effectively or sustainably reduce homelessness with a one-size-fits all approach.

Here is where Bridge House comes in…

Our programs are chronic homelessness prevention programs. Our programs focus on the 75% of people who will not be eligible for Housing First or other HUD voucher programs. We design and implement interventions to help break cycles of homelessness, addiction, unemployment, incarceration, etc… so that our clients can successfully exit to an independent housing solution.

Our goal is to intervene upstream before someone becomes chronically homeless. The trauma of homelessness is hard to imagine. Every day on the streets without an opportunity is one of survival and crisis for the individual and expensive to the community. We have a duty to shorten the time someone is on the streets and, at Bridge House, we do. It is not only smart financially but a human imperative. We need solutions to prevent chronic homelessness.

Here’s our solution

When someone walks into Bridge House’s Severe Weather Shelter or Path to Home program we immediately make sure they have gone through the Coordinated Entry screen for Boulder County that assesses length of homelessness, connection to the community, and disability. This screen is the first step to identify the right program fit. If referred to Path to Home – our short-term, navigation shelter with intensive case management supports – our team immediately works with the client on a plan to transition back into housing. This plan will build upon a person’s natural supports and abilities enhanced by resources such as financial assistance for identification, transportation, career services, and, in some cases, short term rental assistance. Some clients, in need of a longer intervention from Path to Home are referred to our award-winning Ready to Work program.

At Ready to Work we offer a work-first solution to help people become independent through work. We run social ventures that give people a boost with immediate access to employment where day 1 trainees are earning a wage, saving money and contributing to the local economy.  We develop dormitory housing at a fraction – one fifth – of the cost of a traditional unit that is safe and affordable. We offer a community of support that is clean and sober and results oriented.

At Bridge House, we know about 33% of people who walk through our doors will self-resolve through their own channels and, as mentioned previously, 25% will qualify for voucher supported housing – what about the rest? That is our sweet spot.

We serve the 755 with a focus on the 42% that need more than a night of sheltering but less than a lifetime of a voucher. These are people who, despite many current obstacles, have the capacity and desire to get back to work. These are the people that need an income through employment as they will not qualify for government assistance or housing. These are also people who, if we do nothing, will end up after a few years as chronically homelessness. The cost is of waiting is enormous – more than $135,000 per person if you assume just 3 years on the street. We invest as early as we can to prevent chronic homelessness.

Ready to Work is a one-time investment of $30,000 per trainee to break often life-long cycles of homelessness, incarceration and un or under employment. Of the $30,000 half is an earned wage to the trainee paid for through social enterprise. A successful Ready to Work graduate costs the community $0. This one-time investment should be compared to an annual, recurring cost of $45,000 of the average person on the streets in shelter, hospital, jail and detox if we, as a community, do not intervene. Of course, the Housing First concept employs similar math yet the time needed for an individual to qualify is much longer meaning more money spent before a person is eligible and the subsidy – approximately $15,000 per year plus the amortized cost of the unit – is permanent. Again, Housing First is needed, yet only makes sense for 25% of the population.

In conclusion, we believe a balanced, effective and efficient community response to addressing homelessness is crucial. We, at Bridge House, have chosen to serve the 75% with a focus on the 42% with the hope to intervene early to help people help themselves while they can instead of doing nothing for months, even years, before they are voucher eligible.

With our 74% success rate at Ready to Work and average 25 outcomes a month at Path to Home, we are transforming lives and saving the community resources over time and in real time. We seek to transform lives early. Of course since we know homelessness is a symptom of many other systems go array, systems that are broken such as health care, education, criminal justice, we would prefer solutions and prevention even before someone ends up on the streets. But given the reality that people do experience homelessness we believe it is our duty to intervene as early as possible, with a solution as quickly as possible, to reduce time on the streets for the people we help and for maximum community impact.

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