Supportive housing can curb homelessness in our own backyard: A guest column by Rosanne Haggerty and Martha J. Kegel

New Orleanians are engaged in an important conversation about housing the homeless.  But misinformation has often stood in the way of productive debate. Data show that permanent, supportive housing — affordable apartments linked to case management services — is both good for local communities and the only proven way to end the homelessness of people with disabilities.

The philosophy behind supportive housing is simple. The best response to homelessness is housing, and the most effective housing includes supportive services.

Supportive housing tenants work regularly with clinicians and case managers to address physical and behavioral health problems and to stay housed.

As more communities across the country adopt the supportive housing model, long-term or “chronic” homelessness has fallen by more than 30 percent nationwide. The vast majority of supportive housing tenants remain stably housed after moving into their apartments. As these individuals rebuild their lives after years of homelessness, they stop turning up in emergency rooms or going to jail on “homeless” charges. Public cost savings can be as high as $137,000 per person annually.

Supportive housing is successful and cost-effective. Over the past 10 years, more than 2,000 supportive housing apartments have been created in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish that are already housing people with disabilities, many of them formerly homeless.

So why has supportive housing suddenly become controversial in New Orleans?

The current controversy focuses on the redevelopment of an abandoned nursing home on Esplanade Avenue into 40 apartments, half for people with disabilities and half for low-income working people. Leaders of the opposition express fear that formerly homeless disabled tenants will cause an increase in neighborhood violence and a decline in property values. Research and experience point to the opposite outcome. Supportive housing buildings do not negatively impact neighborhoods, and they often afford notable benefits to neighbors.

A recent New York University study evaluated sale prices of residential properties in neighborhoods throughout New York where supportive housing has been developed. As in New Orleans, many of these developments replaced blighted properties like the Esplanade Avenue nursing home. After five years, those residential properties closest to supportive housing developments had appreciated at a markedly higher rate than similar properties a few streets away. Far from driving property values down, supportive housing helped to push them up.

The Esplanade development is one of several now under way through a partnership between UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the nonprofit coordinating local strategies to end homelessness, and Common Ground Community of New York, a leading national nonprofit developer of supportive housing. The partnership seeks to replicate the highly successful Common Ground model, in which supportive housing buildings are carefully designed with aesthetic and community impact in mind. The developments being created will have round-the-clock professional security staff ensuring order and contributing to the overall safety of the neighborhood.

Post-Katrina, New Orleans has suffered a near-doubling of homelessness, partly as a result of a 45 percent spike in rents. The landscape is scarred by 55,000 abandoned commercial and residential buildings, in which more than 1,950 disabled or elderly Katrina survivors are living, according to random sample surveys of census blocks and analysis of people found in these structures by UNITY’s Abandoned Buildings Outreach Team.

These vulnerable persons, along with hundreds more people with disabilities living in emergency shelters or on the streets, deserve the opportunity to have a home.

Their lives may depend on it. Over 800 people with serious disabilities wwawait housing on UNITY’s Permanent Supportive Housing Registry. Among those awaiting housing are a 55-year-old mentally retarded man with heart disease and HIV who has been repeatedly victimized on the streets; a 41-year-old woman repeatedly hospitalized in the past year for heart failure, diabetes, asthma and mental illness; and a 52-year-old veteran with one lung. Supportive housing can reintegrate them into the community.

Homelessness is a humanitarian crisis, but it is bad for a community in many other ways as well. By converting abandoned buildings into beautifully renovated apartments, supportive housing offers an opportunity to help solve several of New Orleans’ pressing problems at once. Housing the homeless is good for everyone.

Rosanne Haggerty is president of Common Ground Community of New York. Martha J. Kegel is executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans.

© 2010 NOLA.com. All rights reserved.

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