Pulaski County judge reveals plan to aid homeless

Aim is helping people find, keep housing

Pulaski County is considering a housing program that would target the chronically homeless, many of whom are mentally and physically disabled, to ease the strain on local resources.

County Judge Barry Hyde introduced this potential "supportive housing program" during a speech he gave last week.

Supportive housing is assistance that not only secures a place for tenants to live, but also connects those tenants with the services they need to retain housing.

Mentorship, substance abuse treatment, skill building and job training are all possible services.

The type of program Pulaski County is considering would target people who have long histories of homelessness, Hyde said in his speech.

That type of program is most often referred to as "permanent supportive housing." It's geared toward people who have some form of mental illness, substance abuse disorder or chronic medical problem that makes maintaining a residence more difficult.

These people are frequently arrested or hospitalized, which costs the local government money. But data show that living in supportive housing reduces those rates by stunning percentages, Hyde said.

These types of programs, with the right partners, "can result in direct public savings and improve public safety," the county judge said. Pulaski County will be "evaluating the feasibility" of such a program going forward, he said.

This project is in its infancy, said Justin Blagg, director of Quorum Court services.

The idea, in part, stemmed from work the county has done to set up a crisis stabilization center. When operational, the center will treat people who are in the middle of mental health crises who also encounter trained law enforcement officers and might otherwise end up in the county jail.

During this process, the county identified people who are arrested frequently and who screened as positive for mental illness when evaluated at the Pulaski County jail.

Even with the crisis center, Blagg said, "the fear is, or the possibility is, that these people just start cycling through."

"The county is realizing there's got to be more looking at the long term," he added.

In the coming months, the county will evaluate whether there's a need for such a program, the costs, the funding sources and available partnerships, he said.

According to the Central Arkansas Team Care for the Homeless, an organization of local groups, about 990 people were homeless in the greater Little Rock area when a tally was taken in 2017.

Three hundred of those people were living in emergency shelters, and 140 people were in transitional housing, while 550 people were living unsheltered.

Of the unsheltered population, 27 were children, the report said. A total of 84 children were living either unsheltered or in transitional or emergency housing.

"There's a tremendous need in our community for housing, in particular," said Ben Goodwin, the executive director of Our House. The shelter houses children and adults who are able to work.

Sandra Wilson, president of the board for the Arkansas Homeless Coalition, agreed that there's a need for housing with the added support network.

"It's never really enough to get someone a roof over their head, if they've been without housing," she said. People who are chronically homeless need help with tasks like making grocery lists. They often miss the community that they were a part of, she said.

"We had folks that went into apartments that didn't know how to operate their thermostat," Wilson said. "Basic skills are kind of lost if you're out on the streets for very long."

A permanent supportive housing program is one of the most intensive, and expensive, actions a community can take toward addressing homelessness, said Kevin Fitzpatrick, a sociology professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He's in the middle of setting up a micro-shelter.

"This is not a problem that cheaply goes away, because all of the solutions about ending homelessness are about providing housing," Fitzpatrick said. "And there's certainly nothing cheap about that."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has historically been the agency that provides money for many of the housing programs across the country, including permanent supportive housing.

President Donald Trump's proposed budget would eliminate $8.8 billion from HUD's budget, though an addendum could add back $2 billion, according to a report from National Public Radio. If approved, the cut would threaten and phase out certain housing and homelessness prevention programs, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

There are cities, like Denver, that have leveraged federal support, but also used private partnerships, to finance housing programs.

Denver officials identified roughly 250 chronically homeless people who were spending thousands of days incarcerated or hospitalized and used detoxification services, costing the city millions, The Denver Post reported.

In 2016, the city launched its first "social impact bond."

Through the bond, investors provided $8.6 million to run a housing program for those residents, the news outlet reported. The city agreed to repay investors based on how many participants stay in the housing program and out of jail over the next five years.

Among the private investors are the Ben and Lucy Ana Walton Fund at the Walton Family Foundation, the newspaper reported.

Blagg said what Denver did could be an example to Pulaski County, though he noted the county is just beginning to delve into the possibilities.

"Hopefully by the end of the year, we have some sort of plan," he said.

Stakeholders would need to understand that supportive housing is different from what the county's done before, he said.

Right now, the county runs a housing choice voucher program, a tenant-based rental assistance program and a family self-sufficiency program, among others. This year, the county was awarded around $50,000 in emergency services grants from HUD to address homelessness.

Despite the services already available, more housing is perpetually needed, Wilson said. And it's not a one-size-fits-all solution, she said.

"We need tiny houses. We need legal campgrounds. ... We don't have enough shelter beds, which comes with its own set of issues."

"There just is not enough affordable housing to take care of the people who need it."

Metro on 03/11/2018

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