100 Homes of Jacksonville: Rational Exuberance

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Since exploding into the public debate in the 1980s, America’s homeless problem has remained front-and-center, and never more so than at the present. It took way too long, but policymakers on all levels of government and the private sector have finally begun to recognize the severity of the problem. And just in time. The economic collapse has had predictable results: the numbers of homeless have spiked, while resources allocated to help them have diminished. Nonprofits of all kinds are getting less from individuals and institutions alike, forcing rapid adaptation of their methods.

The most recent statistics, compiled in 2010, offer a sobering picture of an epidemic entirely unconstrained within demographic boundaries. Officially, over 400,000 people are without regular housing in the US; as with official figures on unemployment, the real number is likely much higher.

According to stats compiled by the Emergency Services and Homelessness Coalition of Jacksonville in January 2011, Northeast Florida has about 4,564 homeless, according to the definition provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development: “[A] person sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation or in an emergency shelter, and a person in transitional housing for homeless persons who originally come from the street or an emergency shelter.” 4,284 live in Duval County with another 280 spread across Clay (113), Nassau (165) and Baker (2) counties. 1,500 of those are “permanent homeless”; they have no shelter of any kind.

(It’s worth noting at this point the vast disparity in how homelessness is formally defined at the state and federal levels. The state definition basically doesn’t count anyone who has access to any type of legal sleeping arrangement, such as: staying with a relative or friend; staying at a hotel, motel, trailer park or campground; “living at an emergency or transitional shelter”; “is living in a car, park, public space, abandoned building, bus or train station, or similar setting”; “is a migratory individual”. The best qualifier: “Has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private space not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings”. Not surprisingly, by this definition, there are only 1,903 homeless—59% fewer than by the state definition. This helps explain why the individual homeless people and those private citizens and organizations out there trying to help them have had such a hard time achieving their goals. Simply compiling workable statistics on the homeless population is a great accomplishment in this area of study.)

Some 90% (4,123) are adults, aged 18-60. There are 230 homeless seniors (60+, 5%), and 189 homeless children (18 and under, 4%); they are the generations most adversely affected by the recession. 3,109 are men, and 1,443 are women; there are two male-to-female transgendered homeless, and 10 who refused to answer the question. Homelessness here is almost evenly divided by race: 2,005 white and 2,373 black. Of course, that represents a much larger percentage of the black community, which is one reason why the leaders of that community are so active on the issue. Also, the Hispanic members of that community need to be better-defined in the numbers.

At least 12% of Northeast Florida’s military population is comprised of veterans—570 of them. Given that another 823 respondents refused to answer the question, for unknown reasons, one may presume that proportion to be as high as 31%, or 1,393. That should put a chill into the heart of every Patriot. But it would, sadly, be consistent with the classic (pre-recession) talking point holding that half of America’s homeless men are vets. Back then, Vietnam vets swelled the homeless population after the 1970s recession, while the vets of Korea and WWII entered their old age, and the VA system was overwhelmed, creating the crisis that continues today.

Health disparities are rife, and exert a brutal toll on emergency services. The primary impact of homelessness is on the person’s health. Overall, premature death rates among the homeless are nearly quadruple those of the general population; their lifespan runs, on average, some 25 years shorter than non-homeless Americans.

They die from starvation, malnutrition, illness from living conditions, or eating tainted food, or not seeking general preventive care. In winter, many homeless up north die of frostbite, gangrene or exposure. Homeless people are often subject to violence, be it from each other or random bullies; this author helped the Southern Poverty Law Center document a number of disturbing incidents in Florida a few years ago.

29% of area respondents (1,316) reported some kind of physical or mental disability; another 1,673 refused to answer the question, so the real percentage may run as high as 66%. Only 10% reported any kind of alcoholism or drug addiction, which may be individual self-delusion or evidence that the usual stereotypes of the homeless are not applicable. Indeed, if there is one factor that can be pinpointed as a root cause of local homeless cases, based on the data, it is economics.

Among the 4,564 respondents to the ESHCJ survey, 41% (1,875) cited “financial problems related to job loss”. 1,270 (28%) cited various forced relocation or family, such as fleeing abusive relationships, while 623 (14%) cited disability issues. (At least one person was rendered homeless due to “Natural/other disasters; surely there’s a story in that.) Also, 3% (121) were once caught up in the foster-care system, which points to how the disruptions of families by whatever means can have a negative effect that reverberates through time. And here’s the most important stat of them all: 54% (2,471) have been homeless for less than a year.

The statistics indicate that, far from being lazy, stupid or crazy, the average homeless person is someone who simply had too many bad things happen at once. We already know the leading causes of both home foreclosure and personal bankruptcy is medical bills, and we know the difficulties that people with preexisting conditions faced get stable jobs with health care before the economy tanked. Now, even decorated combat vets and good-looking young people with advanced degrees are struggling to find work, so where does that leave those at the bottom?

A non-profit organization called Community Solutions has emerged with a bold new vision for tacking the topic head-on and changing the overall debate on homelessness. 100,000 Homes is a national campaign begun in July, 2010 that seeks to place the most vulnerable of America’s long-term homeless into housing by July 2013. If successful, they will have managed to reduce America’s official homeless population by 25%—an unprecedented feat. The idea is to give people a second chance at life, and to show what wonders can happen when those chances are given.

100,000 Homes has already partnered with major non-profits like the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Catholic Charities USA, the United Conference of Mayors, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the Center for Social Innovation, the Conrad Hilton Foundation and the United Way. They’ve even received corporate support from Travel Channel and Bank of America, which could use the good press after a brutal autumn tangling with the Occupy crowd. (They were the primary target of Bank Transfer Day, in which $.6.5 billion in deposits was moved from banks to credit unions, largely to protest BOA’s aborted plan for monthly ATM fees.)

Their one-year anniversary report is loaded with impressive and uplifting stories and statistics from communities as diverse as Denver, Atlanta, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Chicago, New Orleans (which leads the country by averaging 62 placements per month), Washington DC (which is second, with 39, and has the highest one-year housing retention rate—94%), Omaha, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Detroit and, of course, Hollywood. Led by Campaign Director Becky Kanis, 100,000 Homes now has more than 2,000 volunteers working in over 80 communities around the country; they expect to be in over 300 communities by 2013. So far, over 10,000 people have already been taken off the streets, but they’re just getting started.

Statistics can be misleading, of course, but early reports suggest that the group’s key talking-point is correct: Housing the homeless saves cities money. The most detailed study yet was conducted by Denver’s “Housing First Collaborative” project, which has already placed 150 people in homes and has already identified another 513 who could be served once additional funding comes in. Based on initial results for the 150, that money won’t be far behind. The Denver study is a must-see.

The cost of housing people, and counseling them to help them retain their housing, costs them only $13,800 each, or a total of about $2.1 million. Overall, placing 150 homeless into quality low-cost housing saved the taxpayers of Denver a total of $4.7 million; extending the project to the other 513 would generate a savings in excess of $16 million. By breaking those savings down into the constituent categories, they’ve helped spotlight the key costs of homelessness, which are surprising.

Of the 150 studied, 30 (20%) had been incarcerated at some point, twice on average, each spending an average of 26 days in jail at a cost of $1,798 to the city. After being put into housing, only 12 were incarcerated (a 60% decrease); they spent only six days in jail (a 77% decrease), costing taxpayers $427 each. Under their program, the cost of incarcerating participants plummeted by 76%, and Denver saved $26,000.

Health-care costs associated with the participants fell by 45%, with the biggest decrease—65%—occurring in the category on “Inpatient Care”. That’s because the sick people had actual homes to be released to, so doctors didn’t have to worry about the risk of releasing someone back onto the streets, where whatever illness they had would surely get worse. Note that, while “Outpatient Care” costs increased by 51% (because outpatient care is not really possible if one has no home), the actual dollar amount of the increase ($894) pales compared to the $6,845 saved on inpatient care.

The number of Emergency Room visits, and the costs of those visits, decreased by 34%. Total “Emergency Costs” decreased by 77%, or $31,545 per person. These statistics prove that the act of housing the homeless has an immediate, and financially measurable, effect to the benefit of their health, and the taxpayers’ bottom line. Every community is different, so it would be incorrect to just assume that what works in Denver will work in, say, Jacksonville. But between the hard numbers out of Denver, and the mountains of anecdotal evidence coming in from other areas, there is plenty of reason for optimism: If these trends held nationwide, homelessness could be eradicated pretty quickly.

Most of the placements done in the first year have been in communities with 1,000 or fewer chronic unemployed. To achieve their long-term goal, 100,000 Homes will need to step up activities all over the country, but especially in those parts of the country with larger homeless populations. As such, Florida is a priority. Our temperate climate and mild winters, like those of southern California, attract all kinds of people, including disproportionate numbers of homeless people. So, any serious fight against homelessness in America must focus on Florida. And where does Florida begin? Exactly.

100 Homes Jacksonville, the local affiliate of 100,000 Homes, is helping set the pace for the peninsula by networking aggressively among the many organizations already working to uplift the local homeless population. They’ve already lined up some of the region’s heaviest hitters, including the Clara White Mission, City Rescue Mission, Department of Veterans Affairs, Downtown Vision Inc., the Duval County School Board, Eldersource, Habitat For Humanity, the IM Sulzbacher Center, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, the Jacksonville Housing Authority, Lutheran Social Services, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, St. Vincent’s Hospital, Trinity Rescue Mission, UNF, the United Way of Northeast Florida and Worksource.

The VA is providing assistance by giving housing vouchers to vets, while 100 Homes works to acquire quality, low-cost housing for them and others.. As seen in other cities, when veterans are able to turn a corner in their own lives, they tend to channel their energies into helping their fellow vets do the same. The mutual respect and love they show for each other is almost evangelical in nature, and offers a regular reminder that the oaths they all took to protect our country were not forgotten when they came home. The wars fought overseas in recent years are only a prelude to the real battle to preserve the American Dream in our own streets.

The diversity of affiliated groups reflects the diversity of the community and its homeless population. Jacksonville is one of six communities already enrolled in the project around the state; others include Gainesville, Monroe County, West Palm Beach/Palm Beach County, Pasco County and Panama City. Between their own stats and other data, it’s safe to say that Florida has a minimum of 31,000 homeless people; the real number could easily exceed 50,000, so there’s plenty of work to do.

A project of this scale could not succeed without the right organization. Locally, Dawn Gilman, Executive Director of the Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition, is helping lead the way, along with Shawn Liu, from the VA’s Healthcare for Homeless Veterans. Technically, 100 Homes is managed by the VA. Publicly, the project is being pushed most aggressively by Marti Johnson, whose passion for the homeless is visceral. “We’re not only saving lives; we’re also saving the city money,” says Johnson, who estimates (based on the Denver study, and others) that 100 Homes could save the city up to $2 million in emergency services.

A graduate of Belmont University, Johnson spent a year coordinating for nonprofits in Uganda before returning home to Florida. She helped run an orphanage for children of Uganda’s war dead, sandwiched between a weak central government and the notoriously brutal misogynists of the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army”. Subsequent work with AmeriCorps Vista brought her back to Jacksonville, as Communications Coordinator with the Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of Jacksonville, where a big part of her job is getting the word out about 100 Homes.

Johnson lives in Green Cove Springs, to be closer to her family, and so chooses to drive an hour each way, each day, to and from her office at ESHC on the city’s Westside. It’s safe to say the lady has a passion for her business—which is a good thing, because it’s the kind of work that cannot be done without passion.

The next step for 100 Homes is Registry Week, which runs from November 14-19. Volunteers will be out canvassing the streets and collection information from participating organizations city-wide, in hopes of fleshing-out the existing data on our homeless population. Their goals are 1) to update the existing data on the city’s homeless community; 2) promoting the project to those potential allies and advocates who aren’t already aware of its existence; and 3) to begin identifying those homeless who are most in need, and who can make the most of the opportunity.

Besides the veteran outreach (which is probably the easiest part of this project, since there is already an infrastructure in place to identify them and at least try to address their problems), the 76 local homeless families with children are, of course, a priority, as well as the seriously ill.

100 Homes is conducting a “Community Conversation” delineating the data, and where the project is doing next, from 1-3 pm on Thursday, November 18 at the AT&T Auditorium downtown. For the record, 100 Homes has no intention of stopping at just 100; indeed, the room for growth in a city like this is immense, and it has the potential to be another one of those remarkable stories 100,000 Homes is generating nationwide.

http://www.100khomes.org

http://www.100homesjax.org

http://twitter.com/#!/100HomesJAX

http://www.facebook.com/100HomesJax

sheltonhull@gmail.com; November 10, 2011

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About Shelton Hull

I'm a writer/journalist with over 20 years experience covering all types of subject-matter, with a specialization in politics, music, food and dance. My work has been published in nearly 40 different magazines, newspapers, websites and zines, in addition to occasional forays into radio, TV and spoken-word. Former candidate for City Council District 14 in Jacksonville, FL (2011), and a proud member of Gator Nation.

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