Affordable housing is the single most important resource for addressing and preventing homelessness. For chronically homeless, severely disabled people, the data show - not surprisingly - that supportive housing - housing attached to services - not only works but also is cost-effective. A study by Dennis Culhane and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania found that it cost just under $1,000 more per year to house a homeless, mentally ill person permanently than it did to serve him/her as part of a homeless population. And this does not take into account the benefits for health and employment status, or improvements to neighborhoods and communities.
The newly released federal budget, unfortunately, could reverse and stymie the progress that has been made:
The budget does not include renewal funding for critical permanent housing programs such as Shelter Plus Care, which provides rental assistance in connection with supportive services for homeless people with disabilities. Nor is renewal money available for the Supportive Housing Program, which funds the development of housing and services that will allow homeless people to live as independently as possible. This could mean that people who have been in housing and programs will end up back on the streets.
There is nothing in the budget to support increases in production of affordable housing, especially housing targeted to people in the greatest need. The level of homeless assistance grants in the proposed 2003 budget is a mere half-percent more than in 2001. This means that few, if any, additional people will receive housing and services.
There is no homelessness assistance that taps into the government's largest source of funds for people in need, the Department of Human Services budget. This means that fewer services are available to our most vulnerable populations.
James Smith is one of the reasons federal anti-homelessness programs must be renewed - and one of the reasons a cut in funding will be disastrous. Just two years ago, Smith was living on the streets, struggling with a powerful addiction. Through the persistent efforts of skilled outreach workers, he agreed to come off the streets and enter a recovery program for homeless men.
Today, Smith has been clean for two years, has a community college degree, and is working in a program for disadvantaged youth - because he wants to "give back" to those in need. Without long-term support, James would have ended up back on the street. His story exemplifies Philadelphia's need for more - not fewer - spots in programs like the one that helped him get back on his feet.
Philadelphia's congressional delegation is especially well-placed to help us accomplish this goal. Sen. Arlen Specter serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Sen. Rick Santorum on the Senate Housing Policy subcommittee. U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah sits on the House HUD Appropriations Subcommittee. Their leadership and support is necessary to make sure that the President and Congress end this renewal crisis once and for all.
There are hundreds more like James Smith on our streets. Homelessness and urban poverty must be on the national agenda of both political parties. Despite years of economic prosperity, the systemic issues that foster homelessness and poverty still cry out for creative and energetic solutions. There is a clear opportunity now for our President and Congress to leave a real and lasting legacy: a housing safety net that ensures that everyone has a place to call home.
Sister Mary Scullion is executive director of Project HOME.