Staff Columnist

Grant helps homeless, taxpayers

A man lays on a bench on the Pedestrian Mall with temperatures about 40 degrees in Iowa City on Tuesday, Apr. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A man lays on a bench on the Pedestrian Mall with temperatures about 40 degrees in Iowa City on Tuesday, Apr. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

An Iowa City study, completed in 2014 and showing the monetary costs of chronic homelessness, is about to get a significant expansion.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation announced Monday that Johnson County has been chosen as one of three sites nationwide to test a new crisis response model that could help people who continually cycle between various criminal justice, health and social service programs. The foundation has earmarked $1.6 million in grant money for the three pilot programs, intended to build cooperation and broader data sharing between police, hospitals and social services.

“We are excited to begin to meet the need that law enforcement, behavioral health professionals and social service staff have voiced for years,” said Lynn Overmann, vice president of data-driven justice at the Arnold Foundation. “The pilot programs and research we’re funding represent an important step forward in helping communities create better options to respond to frequent utilizers, improve community safety and provide much-needed stability and health.”

From 2009 to 2014, the Johnson County Local Homeless Coordinating Board tracked four chronically homeless people in Iowa City in an attempt to gauge the average cost to taxpayers when people cycle back-and-forth between various social programs, jails and medical facilities. Over the course of the five-year study, more than $2.1 million in unreimbursed costs were accrued, primarily from health and mental health services. On average, each person’s interaction cost $139,662 annually — far more than the cost of housing and stabilizing programs.

But taxpayer burden isn’t the only concern. People forced to worry about where they will sleep or what they will eat spend less time managing chronic health problems or seeking help for addiction. As Shelter House Director Crissy Canganelli noted during the 2016 statewide housing conference, one of the four people who agreed to take part in the Johnson County study died about a year after the study ended.

“We simply can’t leave people to, to put it bluntly, die on the streets,” she told conference attendees.

Research by federal agencies shows that most people are temporarily homeless. In some cases the trigger is lost employment, in others its domestic violence or a medical condition. The chronically homeless make up about 15 percent of the overall population, but absorb a far greater share of community resources.

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That knowledge, combined with localized data, was key to garnering support for Cross Park Place, a housing-first development and statewide demonstration project targeting the community’s chronically homeless.

The latest grant will further help Johnson County identify and recoup money now spent on arrests, processing, incarceration, medical treatment, emergency shelters and other social services; and provide vulnerable residents the best chance possible for a better outcome. It’s a continuation of what local officials began during the 2016 White House Data-Drive Justice Initiative.

Most important, it’s the most effective path forward.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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