Beyond Spare Change, Part 1: Tackling Chronic Homelessness

Wilmington, NC – More than a hundred people a day pass through Good Shepherd Ministries' lunch line. They range from teenagers in hip-hop gear to local ministers to ragged men and women.

The soup kitchen doesn't make any distinctions about whom it serves. But a new effort to help the homeless does. Local governments, non-profits, and businesses have teamed up to tackle what's called 'chronic homelessness.'

It's a term coined to describe who've spent years on the streets, generally with psychological problems and drug addictions. Decades ago, they would have been institutionalized in government-run mental hospitals. But with many of those facilities shut down, this group long ago fell through society's cracks, living on the streets and self-medicating with illegal drugs and alcohol.

That's the story UNCW Political Science professor Milan Dhuly tells about the chronically homeless, and it's a problem he believes is compounded by their strong negative image.

"Once you take the veterans out and the women out of the catagory, that kind of male, 'shiftless,' 'doesn't work,' 'doesn't want to work,' 'can't work,' is the person the public doesn't want to help when it really comes down to it," Dluhy says.

But the Bush Administration is interested in that person. Over the last eight years, the department of Housing and Urban Development has made tackling long-term homelessness a priority, tying some of its local funding to plans like the one the Cape Fear region is working to develop.

Helping the chronically homeless may be a federal priority, but they it's often a hard sell to the general public, and even to traditional service providers, according to Dluhy.

Churches and civic groups are well set up to help families in short-term crisis, where problems can be solved with temporary housing and employment help. But when it make take three or four years of intensive services before someone can begin to function in society, Dhuly wonders how much patience the public really has.

Calculating the Cost of Chronic Homelessness

To bolster their work, members of the committee developing the Ten Year Plan are trying to put a pricetag on what chronic homelessness already costs local taxpayers, invisible as many of those bills are.

There are the police calls. Wilmington police officers made 930 visits to five of Wilmington's homeless shelters last year. The department budgets each trip at $33.24, giving a total of $30,913.20 for the year. And that, according to the Department's crime analyst, Barry Coburn, is before factoring in the cost of any additional investigation those calls might have required.

There are the emergency room trips. Although New Hanover Regional Medical Center couldn't separate out what it spends treating the homeless, spokesman Scott Whisnant says the hospital is already running $5 million over its charity care budget for this fiscal year.

And there's the county jail.

Captain Rhonda Smith flips through a thick stack of reports, detailing the homeless men and women who've spent time in her facility so far in 2007. As the same faces flicker past over and over -- some as weathered as trees, some as fresh as job applicants -- she reads off their many ailments: "Alcohol and drug dependencies, suicidal -- suicidals are a big risk -- diabetic, epileptic..." She goes on to include heart disease, dental work, late-stage AIDS, pregnancy.

On any given day, Smith estimates she houses ten to twelve homeless people at the jail. Last Friday there were fifteen.

With a bed at the jail running $80 a night, that's at least $350,000 a year, before adding in the cost of treating all those ailments, which the county is legally obligated to do for all its prisoners.

Smith wants to see the jail reserved for violent criminals. For the homeless, "there are other avenues open, or need to be opened," she says. "What we tell people is this is one of the most expensive options available.

Ending Homelessness?

The Committee has a lot of precedents to consider as it draws up its own plan for the chronically homeless. At least three hundred regions around the country are in, or have completed, the Ten Year Plan process, including eleven in North Carolina.

The most popular solution seems to be homeless assistance centers, clearinghouses with on-site services and long-term caseworkers, and small-scale group houses. Dluhy anticipates the Cape Fear plan will probably propsoe similar measures. But even if the region finds the money for a dozen or more halfway houses, "where are we going to put these places?" Dluhy asks rhetorically.

But for Committee Co-Chairman Spiro Macris, there may finally be momentum to make some hard choices. "So many things that we do in our society," he says, "we don't act until we absolutely have to, until we feel some pain, whether it's financial or psychological or what-have-you."

Committee members admit that no plan has ever achieved that lofty goal of ending chronic homelessness in its community. Instead, in this battle, success is often measured one program, and one life, at a time.


Related Stories: Beyond Spare Change, Part 2 -- Housing the Homelessness

City Weighs Bids for Reserve Center

Wilmington Losing Affordable Housing



The Interagency Council on Homelessness

Cape Fear's Ten Year Planning Committee

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