Fayette County

Lexington prepares to launch new program to help longtime homeless find a home

Following the example of Louisville and Nashville, Lexington will soon start a program to help get longtime homeless people off the streets.

Earlier this month, the Urban County Council approved a three-year, $750,000 contract for the Hope Center, a homeless shelter in Lexington, to provide housing and case management to 20 people.

In addition, the council will soon be asked to approve a $40,000 contract for the University of Kentucky's Center for Business and Economic Research to determine whether the program is successful and cost-effective.

Called Housing First, the program puts homeless people in homes without requiring that they receive drug treatment or other services. The program will place 20 people in housing throughout Lexington over three years.

Housing First has been pushed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — which controls federal money for the homeless — as a successful model to help people who traditionally aren't served by a shelter.

David Shadd, director of programs at the Hope Center, said the center is interviewing for two case managers. The program will begin a vulnerability assessment of Lexington's homeless population in January. That assessment will look at a person's medical history, mental-health issues, addiction and months or years living on the street.

Those who are most vulnerable will be recommended for the program.

Shadd hopes to have the first person housed in late January or early February. That date could change depending on how long it takes to hire case managers and conduct the assessments.

The $750,000 price tag might sound steep, but preliminary Housing First studies show that it costs the entire social service delivery system more if those people stay on the street, said Charlie Lanter, the city's director of the office of homelessness prevention and intervention.

Chronically homeless people are a small portion of the homeless population but cost the most to serve. For example, a study in Hawaii showed that 1,751 homeless adults were responsible for 564 hospitalizations, costing the system $4 million. A study in Los Angeles found that placing just four chronically homeless people in permanent housing saved the city more than $80,000 a year in lower emergency room, jail and other costs.

The city's contract with UK will provide a detailed analysis of those costs. The analysis will look at the cost for that person to receive no services, and the cost to serve someone in the Hope Center's traditional shelter system as opposed to the Housing First model.

"There has been very little good cost evaluation," said Chris Bollinger, executive director of UK's Center for Business and Economic Research. "This program may look very expensive, but it may actually have better outcomes."

Lanter said UK's analysis is likely to be one of the most detailed studies of Housing First in the country.

"HUD knows we are doing this, and they are excited about it," Lanter said of the UK analysis. "It could become a national model."

Shadd, who has visited Housing First programs in Louisville and Nashville, said most homeless people — some of whom have lived outside for years — stay housed for years under the Housing First model. Some national statistics show that 75 percent of people who participate in Housing First programs stay housed years later, Shadd said.

Many chronically homeless people also suffer from mental illness. This program will allow those people who can't function in congregate settings, such as a homeless shelter, an opportunity to live off the street, Lanter said.

Other Housing First programs have shown that people who are addicts tend to seek help after receiving housing because they are no longer dealing with the stress of being homeless and can concentrate on getting better, he said.

"This will not replace our existing shelter system," Lanter said. "This will serve a population that has traditionally not been served.

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