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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Homing In on Homelessness

In the struggle against homelessness, some people are good at putting faces to stark numbers. Indeed, the face of homelessness is bleak: folks hanging out on State Street, organizing for bedtime under park shrubs and holding signs at grocery store parking lots.

But I’m more of a numbers person, since numbers can help point to a solution. I’d like to look at three numbers: $238,700, 117 and $35 million.

The first number caught my attention in a Los Angeles Times article last summer. It was the result of Project 50, a two-year closely watched study on the cost of homelessness in Los Angeles County.

The controlled research tracked 100 homeless people (the group was later expanded), providing half of them with up-front housing. They then monitored the individuals in each group to record the public costs required by the housed versus the control group. Over the two-year period, the housed group required less total outlay, yielding a net savings of $238,700.

The reasons are not surprising. Although the housed group required more up-front expenditure for housing and mental health services, the control group ended up requiring more public money for emergency room visits, jail time and substance abuse programs. When you look at the numbers, therefore, it turns out that housing the most chronically homeless people is not only more humane but also favors the taxpayer.

One outcome of the study was the creation nationwide of the “100,000 Homes Campaign.” The campaign challenges cities to perform a biannual survey to count the homeless population and identify the very worst cases.

Santa Barbara participated in the first Registry Week, called the Vulnerability Index and Point in Time Count, in 2011. Common Ground Santa Barbara County and the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness ran the survey with the help of more than 500 volunteers. These volunteers, including many UCSB students, located 1, 536 homeless and were able to survey 1,143. Following the survey, the most entrenched were identified. To date, 117 have been provided housing.

“We go through the data from our survey, and find out who the most vulnerable people are, and then we work to house these people,” according to Jessielee Coley, a UCSB alumna and volunteer coordinator. “So basically our next step after is to actually work on getting everyone some type of stable residential situation.”

Of course, counting and housing the worst off won’t resolve the issue alone. Services, programs and associated costs for managing temporary and chronic homelessness costs the Santa Barbara region as much as $35 million to $40 million annually, according to leaders at a dialogue on homelessness last November. The roundtable, held at the Museum of Natural History, brought together a panel of city, county and nonprofit representatives with concerned citizens. The speakers discussed their programs and projects and listened as citizens with many perspectives shared their frustrations. No easy answers were sought or found.

But facts help shape the solutions. Look for the results of the 2013 Registry Week, which was held Jan. 22-23. This one involved more than 600 volunteers. The results will be out soon. The improved economy may help to reduce the 1,536, but it will take trust in the results of Project 50 to invest the up-front costs. If we can improve on the 117 helped off the streets after 2011, I’m betting we can shrink the $35 million.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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