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Homeless improve under city’s Housing First program, study says

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    The latest University of Hawaii study says homeless people are far better off in housing. Maryellen Kaai, left, and Thomas Lamberton are Housing First clients who live in apartments on Kapiolani Boulevard near Kalakaua Avenue.

The latest report card shows that homeless people placed into market-rate apartments through the city’s Housing First program continue to do better than their counterparts on the street — and are far less likely to use drugs and alcohol, get arrested or rely on hospital emergency rooms.

The study by the University of Hawaii’s College of Social Sciences continued to track the first two years of the city’s 3-year-old Housing First program and found that:

>> 92 percent of clients reported never or rarely using drugs after one year in Housing First; 80 percent reported never or rarely using alcohol after one year.

>> Clients were 64 percent less likely to visit an emergency room, and they were 74 percent less likely to be admitted to a hospital.

>> Clients were 55 percent less likely to be arrested after one year and 61 percent less likely to be arrested after two years.

“Two years after launching Housing First, we continue to see the program’s effectiveness in transforming lives while reducing emergency expenses,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “Housing First is the right thing to do, as well as a smart investment that saves taxpayer funds.”

The city calls Housing First “a nationally recognized best practice that has proven to be the most effective and efficient approach to helping people experiencing chronic homelessness get into housing.”

The UH study follows a similar one released last year and continued to map the progress of 214 people — including 48 children — who were placed into permanent housing by the Institute for Human Services from November 2014 to November 2016.

Connie Mitchell, IHS’ executive director, said in a statement: “The city’s Housing First program is evidence that we can come together as a community to end chronic homelessness in Hawaii. Results of the study are reflective of the hard work done by public and private partners who’ve transformed the lives of those needing a home. Because of them, some of our community’s most vulnerable residents are now housed, happier, healthier and contributing members of our local community.”

Housing First does not require clients to be sober. But they are assigned social service case managers, whom landlords can call to deal with any issues.

U.S. Vets took over the city’s Housing First contract in December 2016 to place 100 households. Last week the city requested bids to run its third Housing First contract, worth $2.2 million, to place 100 homeless households. The contract is being funded through $1 million from the city and $1.2 million in federal money.

By the time the third phase is complete, the city expects to accommodate 315 households.

The UH study of IHS clients found that 89 percent of them were still housed. Eighteen clients were no longer in stable housing, including five who were incarcerated.

Before they were housed, the Housing First clients were considered “chronically homeless,” meaning they’d been homeless for at least a year and had some form of disability.

Thomas Lamberton, 56, believes he would have ended up dead on Punchbowl Street if he hadn’t gotten his Housing First apartment on Kapiolani Boulevard, near Kalakaua Avenue, 18 months ago.

He had been drinking so much vodka — usually around the state Capitol, where he would bathe in the Capitol’s bathroom sinks — that Lamberton can’t even remember how long he’s been homeless.

Now he attends a couple of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week and insists he’s sober. He won’t even allow others to drink in his one-bedroom, cinder-block apartment that costs $1,475 per month. Lamberton’s share of the rent, $250 per month, comes out of his Social Security payments. The rest is paid by government vouchers.

Lamberton said he owes his transformation to Waikiki Health’s former Care-A-Van manager, Michelle Ip, who first got him off the street — and to the many other social workers along the way who continue to help him.

But it was especially Ip “who put up with me and tolerated me when I was a drunk back then,” Lamberton said. “I had lost all hope. People tell me all the time, ‘You’d be the last person to quit drinking. You should be dead.’”

Now Lamberton considers himself “one of the lucky ones,” adding, “I haven’t been sober this long in at least 30 years. Things are a lot brighter now.”

His next-door neighbor, Maryellen Kaai, also 56, just moved in last month after she discovered mold in her previous Housing First apartment. Kaai had spent 20 years homeless, mostly around the Makiki area, living in a long list of cars until she eventually ended up on a sidewalk.

That led her to IHS’ shelter and then to the city’s Hale Mauliola transitional shelter on Sand Island in 2015, where Kaai started to envision a better future.

“Sand Island was made for me,” Kaai said.

Now in her studio apartment, Kaai has been busy decorating in pinks and purples, along with images of “piggies and spider monkeys.” She likes to make puzzles with her grandson and hung one of “Beauty and the Beast” above her closet.

“I love it,” she said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

If she hadn’t gotten a permanent place to live, “I’d be on Kalakaua in a tent,” Kaai said. “Now everything’s falling into place.”

The UH study also compared the Housing First clients with those without homes.

After one year, Housing First clients had a 55 percent decrease in arrests. At the same time, homeless people in the comparison group saw a 36 percent increase in arrests — primarily for petty thefts of items worth less than $100.

Housing First clients after one year of being housed also experienced a 74 percent decrease in the average days they were incarcerated. Their homeless counterparts, at the same time, saw an 86 percent increase in the average number of days they were incarcerated.

Homeless people placed into housing also became more engaged: 89 percent were more involved in faith-based communities and 96 percent were active in general, community-based groups.

“One of the critical pieces really is providing people with support once they get into housing and creating a place where they feel wanted and part of society,” said Jack Barile, an assistant UH psychology professor who led the study. “One of the problems is the alienation. If you see someone living on the streets, the immediate reaction is to call 911 or figure out how they can be removed instead of actually offering a hand to help someone. When you do that, people will do well instead of just pushing them to the side.”

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