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To Cure Homelessness,How About Homes?

What do you do with people who are incurably homeless? Virginia Supportive Housing is adopting a new approach that's gaining popularity nationwide. In short: Forget temporary shelters. Just give them a home.

The "housing first" movement argues that the system of endlessly helping the homeless with shelters and various programs doesn't work for chronic cases. So, the reasoning goes, first provide a permanent place to live, then make services available.

It's an idea advocated by Philip Mangano, director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness. Virginia Supportive Housing is following the Pathways to Housing model, based on a housing-first program in New York City that boasts an 85 percent retention rate.

Local homeless-services agencies are identifying 50 to 60 "frequent flyers" — single adults who are chronically homeless and suffer from serious mental illness and often substance abuse. These problems often prevent them from entering traditional shelters.

By early 2007, Virginia Supportive Housing intends to begin placing these individuals into apartments throughout the region, says Alice Tousignant, executive director of the organization. These homeless people will pay 30 percent of their income in rent. If that income is zero, they pay nothing. A support team consisting of a psychiatrist, nurse and social worker will visit each person regularly — even daily, at first. The clients will be able to stay as long as they want.

Tousignant says she expects the program, called A Place To Start, will cost about $15,000 annually per person.

"These folks are already costing the system a lot of money," she points out. At one local hospital, inpatient psychiatric treatment for a small group of the chronically homeless costs $21,000 apiece in one year, Tousignant says. That figure doesn't include the costs of ambulance rides, emergency room visits and jail.

Obstacles to starting the program, such as raising money, remain. And finding landlords who want to participate will be a challenge, Tousignant acknowledges, though she hopes the frequent check-ins by staff will allay their concerns. The idea, she says, is that given a stable home and supervision, her homeless clients will "stay out of trouble." S

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