Staff Editorial

'Housing first' shows great potential in Eastern Iowa

The kitchen area of an apartment at Cross Park Place on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. Cros Park Place is a housing first project of Shelter House. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The kitchen area of an apartment at Cross Park Place on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. Cros Park Place is a housing first project of Shelter House. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Eastern Iowa communities are posting encouraging results as they explore new ways to support people with barriers to adequate housing.

People experiencing homelessness can generate enormous unreimbursed costs to government and nonprofit service providers. A recent study in Linn County found those costs might substantially decrease under an innovative model of housing support.

Currently, many homeless shelters offer conditional services. Clients might have to required to stay sober, participate in therapy or seek employment, as a few examples. The prevailing attitude has been that limited resources should be reserved for those who are most willing to make healthy choices.

An emerging alternative, often known as “housing first,” calls for providing stable housing, without imposing significant barriers to access. As long as clients comply with basic health and safety rules, they typically are not required to participate in other programs.

Mounting evidence suggests this approach could deliver better results with lower costs in many cases.

The Linn County study tracked eight frequent users of local services, and estimated those people generated a combined $1.2 million in costs over a five-year period. That includes expenses incurred by health care providers and the criminal justice system, among others.

When participants were provided stable housing, their average monthly costs were nearly $5,000 less than when they were homeless. That’s attributable in part to fewer emergency room visits and police interactions.

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Problems related to mental illness or substance abuse are compounded by not having a place to sleep at night.

“A lot of it is stress, and I have less of it now. Stress causes illness. You worry about this, you worry about that. You get sick. You end up drinking too much. You end up in the hospital. You end up in jail,” one study participant recently told Gazette reporter B.A. Morelli.

Equipped with these findings and similar research from elsewhere, local service providers have started to change their approach to homeless services.

Crestwood Ridge Apartments in Cedar Rapids has five permanent supportive housing units for chronically homeless people, managed by Willis Dady Homeless Services. This year, Shelter House in Iowa City opened Cross Park Place, which has 24 “housing first” units.

While additional monitoring and research still is necessary to measure the long-term efficacy of such services, the preliminary results are impressive. We applaud the service providers who have brought these ideas to reality in our region.

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