A new plan: officials working to provide self-sufficient, individual-unit housing for chronically homeless

Iowa City Ped Mall
The Housing First approach looks to take homeless individuals off the street and place them into a safe, stable living environment, making successful substance abuse treatment more likely.

The Johnson County Local Homeless Coordinating Board (LHCB) plans to start providing free or drastically reduced-price, individual-unit housing to local, chronically homeless and service-resistant individuals within the next two years.

According to Phoebe Trepp, Chair of the LHCB’s Collaboration Committee, the units will be self-sufficient, each containing its own bathroom, small living area, bedroom, kitchenette and a washer and dryer. Most, if not all, will be fully handicapped accessible. A site for this housing has yet to be determined.

The approach is known as Housing First, and it operates on the idea that people are more willing and more able to address substance abuse issues after they have been introduced to a safe, stable living environment. It seems like a common-sense plan, but it’s revolutionizing the way U.S. cities provide for their homeless populations.

Trepp says Iowa City’s Housing First program was born from the the Frequent User Systems Engagement (FUSE) model. Following this model, the LHCB created detailed case studies over a five year period. These case studies examine the lives of people surviving on the streets, and look at the amount of time they spend cycling through hospitals, rehab facilities, temporary shelters and jails. According to Shelter House Executive Director (and LHCB member) Crissy Canganelli, their research shows that the county spends well over $120,000 annually on services for the chronically homeless.

“That is an extraordinary amount of money for people who just end up living on the street and continue to be homeless, and continue to be very sick,” Canganelli said.

By getting people off the streets and into safer environments, the Housing First program has saved cities across the U.S. millions of dollars. In the year following the implementation of their version of the Housing First program, Portland, OR saw a $500,000 reduction in total Medicaid spending. The average annual cost of supporting a chronically homeless individual to Salt Lake City, UT was over $20,000 before Housing First. The annual cost of housing them after the introduction of the program, including the cost of paying the support-staff that helped them make the transition to living in a home: $8,000.

“It’s not a 100 percent correction, but you can start to see that people become healthier and take better care of themselves,” Canganelli said. “By far there is a great deal less utilization of the services that they were accessing, they aren’t incarcerated as much, and it’s because they have a home and they are not living out their lives on the street.”

Finding a location for this housing could prove to be a difficult process, though. After public outcry in the leadup to the opening of the temporary Shelter in the former Aldi’s space on South Gilbert St., Canganelli says she isn’t sure where the best location will be, but it will likely be in a different area altogether.

“Our lesson from this experience [at the Aldi’s temporary shelter] has very clearly been that we won’t do it in this part of town,” Canganelli said. “That has been the message that we have resoundingly heard. I want to make it clear that [the Housing First project] and the siting of it, is an entirely separate project that has nothing to do with the temporary shelter that Hodge Construction came forward and volunteered for us to use for two months.”

Trepp says it is unlikely that the group will be able to find an existing property in a receptive site that can be renovated to meet the requirements of the project. Instead, she says she has been in talks with a large Johnson County developer whom she hopes will agree to publicly back the project within the next two weeks. After she gets confirmation from the developer, they can begin the process of applying for tax credits and requesting funding from the Iowa City City Council and the State of Iowa.

“On the services side, we’ve done a lot to frame who would be eligible for this, how would we find the participants, who would staff it, what kind of services would be available,” Trepp said. “All of that stuff is pretty ready to go, we still have to finalize a lot of details, but we have a lot of the framework in place. If we have housing available, we’re ready to roll with the program, but the housing is probably going to take a year if not two.”

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