Of course, nobody wants it in their backyard. But as the Vancouver Housing Authority considers construction of a 30-unit apartment building to house the chronically homeless in downtown Vancouver, the hard truth is that the proposal makes a lot of sense — in terms of both location and function.
Lincoln Place would be a $4.7 million project located at West 13th and Lincoln streets, across the street from Share House and in the midst of other service providers for the downtrodden. As Ceci Ryan Smith, an opponent of the proposal, told Columbian reporter Scott Hewitt, “Anyone who walks around 12th and Lincoln can easily observe the ghetto-like concentration of dysfunctional people: Share House, Open House Ministries, active drug dealers, private housing for sex offenders.”
That creates a difficult situation, particularly for nearby residents. And yet it points out the necessity for Lincoln Place to be added to the area. The first rule of any business or school or social service provider is to go where the need is, rather than attempting to bring the need to you. Critics argue that placing additional services near the downtown core — Lincoln Place would be a 12-block walk from Esther Short Park — would draw more homeless to the area, but the fact is that homeless people gravitate toward city centers in every urban setting. Others have argued that additional homeless services in the area could hamper the attractiveness of a proposed waterfront development — again ignoring the fact that any stroll through Esther Short Park reveals that homeless people already are in the downtown core.
Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association, said: “Homeless are going to be in the area. That’s why I like the setting right across from Share. I think it’s good to take 30 chronically homeless individuals and give them a home.”
The question then becomes: What is the best way to deal with the issue? In that regard, Lincoln Place presents an approach that is growing in popularity. Working from the idea of “Housing First” — a philosophy that stresses the need to get people into housing before dealing with the underlying conditions that led to their homelessness — Lincoln Place would be a “wet” facility. In other words, unlike many homeless shelters, residents would not have to remain clean and sober to live there.
Several studies have reinforced the effectiveness of such an approach; for example, an examination of a Housing First program in Ontario, Canada, determined that “providing prompt, permanent shelter to the city’s homeless is cheaper and more effective than trying to treat underlying conditions such as mental health or addictions first.” A study of a Housing First building in Seattle showed that alcoholics dramatically cut their drinking after moving into the facility, and a University of Washington study found that the program was saving taxpayers money. In Portland, taxpayer-provided Medicaid costs for people who moved into a Housing First building dropped from an average of $1,667 a month to $899.
Chronic homelessness, often fueled by substance abuse in conjunction with mental illness, poses a difficult dilemma for society. The issue never will be solved to the point where everybody has secure housing, but it can be mitigated and it can be dealt with in a way that actually reduces societal costs. Housing First facilities show promise of being an effective approach, even if the notion of allowing substance use seems counterintuitive. But before progress can be made, the solution needs to go to the problem.