Opinion

A Prescription Ben Carson Can Write on Homelessness

By Laura Mascuch |  

March 20, 2017 |  

(Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

President Donald Trump’s proposed $6.2 billion cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are unconscionable, especially considering that there are 86,000 homeless people in his home state of New York. The cuts debilitate affordable housing development, blow a hole in the already bleeding budgets of public housing and endanger supportive housing – our best hope of addressing homelessness among those with the most challenges. With a few weeks under his belt as HUD secretary, Dr. Ben Carson now has the opportunity and obligation to stand up for the hundreds of thousands of Americans currently homeless or at risk.

Supportive housing blends permanent affordable housing – financed by the private sector along with public subsidy and incentives – with wrap-around social services to help people rebuild their lives. This model, born in New York, leverages cross-sector collaboration to end homelessness for people facing obstacles like disability, mental illness, addiction, and serious traumatic histories.

Secretary Carson purports to understand the deep connection between housing and health, and his focus on lead poisoning in the confirmation hearing bore fruit in the president’s budget: lead abatement represents the only increase to HUD funding. But as a medical expert, Dr. Carson should know that homelessness itself is as great a risk to public health as the physical hazards in our housing stock.

Across a variety of supportive housing programs, health outcomes are impressive. A number of studies, including this one from Portland, Oregon, have shown that tenants’ use of emergency medical services and hospitals in general can decrease by more than 50 percent.

Better health and stable housing saves money as well. In New York, placing homeless individuals in supportive housing has been found to save our government $10,100 per year, per tenant. That’s why supportive housing has had bipartisan support for decades, with HUD funding for this extraordinarily effective and cost-efficient model growing under Republican and Democrat administrations alike.

But this is about more than money. It is about helping people get their lives back on track. Recently, I met Jennifer, a resident at the Schermerhorn, a supportive housing residence in Brooklyn. Jennifer has a master’s degree and worked as a teacher for 24 years. After her husband passed away, she struggled with depression and drinking and lost her apartment. She slept in friends’ homes, in apartment building hallways and sometimes outside.

Finally, Jennifer connected with an outreach worker from the nonprofit Breaking Ground and was given the opportunity to move into the Schermerhorn. There, she found a welcoming community of peers and dedicated staff who taught her how to manage a household budget and helped her work on new health goals like quitting smoking.

Now, Jennifer is thriving – attending church, volunteering in soup kitchens and caring for her (also formerly homeless) neighbors. “Sometimes all people need is someone to listen to them,” she said.

The proposed HUD cuts, however, would significantly hamper supportive housing development. New York City – like most communities in America – looks to federal programs like HOME to leverage local and private capital to address homelessness. The Schermerhorn, for example, used HOME funding to leverage state, city, private and philanthropic resources. Nationwide, every $1 of HOME capital funding leverages $4.20 of additional public and private funding. Trump’s budget eliminates the HOME program.

Rental assistance and homelessness funding through the McKinney Vento program is a huge question mark: only $4.1 billion of the $6.2 billion of proposed cuts are identified. While the White House claims that they can make “reforms that reduce costs,” these cuts will likely cause serious harm to the hundreds of thousands of poor, disabled and homeless people in communities nationwide.

Secretary Carson needs to show leadership. The Trump budget threatens our best bet for ending homelessness. In fact, it will cause more people to become homeless, devastating communities from Trump’s Manhattan to Carson’s hometown of Detroit. And taxpayers will pay more for their care. If Carson can fight for the health and wellbeing of people like Jennifer through life-saving housing policy, he will leave a lasting legacy.

Laura Mascuch is the executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York.

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