In Our View: Mitigating Homelessness

Lincoln Place experiment may yield steps in right direction to solution

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Vancouver’s Lincoln Place is an innovative experiment in addressing the issue of homelessness. But, one year after the facility opened near downtown Vancouver, it remains exactly that — an experiment. As the project continues, it will be essential that organizers be able to document the effectiveness of the approach.

Lincoln Place adheres to the philosophy of “Housing First,” which states that getting homeless people into a secure residence is the first step toward solving underlying issues that often include drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, or other factors. Unlike traditional efforts to help the homeless, it does not require residents to be clean and sober before moving in; instead, it makes social services available, but not required. As the National Alliance to End Homelessness explains: “The Housing First approach views housing as the foundation for life improvement and enables access to permanent housing without prerequisites or conditions beyond those of a typical renter.”

This is a fairly new approach and it can be a controversial one; many people argue that public money should not be used to subsidize those with substance issues. But the experience of other cities suggests that Housing First often is effective in helping people to help themselves. A study of such a program in San Francisco, for example, found that Housing First reduces costs to taxpayers in the long run.

That points to the two primary questions that must be asked: Does the program help citizens? And is it cost-effective? While one school of thought suggests that homeless people often are to blame for their situation and that social service programs too often are ineffective, the fact is that ignoring the problem is costly. Failing to provide assistance and allowing citizens to live on the street increases the costs of public health and emergency services that get passed along to the rest of us. According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a chronically homeless person costs taxpayers between $30,000 and $50,000 per year; placing them in supportive housing has a price tag of about $20,000 per year.

Lincoln Place is a 30-unit facility that cost $6 million to construct near Share House on the western edge of Vancouver’s downtown. It provides small, furnished studio apartments of about 320 square feet, with kitchenettes and private bathrooms. Residents pay one-third of their income — in some cases that amounts to $0 — and the program is subsidized by the Vancouver Housing Authority, Clark County and Share.

By itself, the project does little to solve what is an increasing problem throughout Clark County. The Council for the Homeless estimates that there are 323 chronically homeless people in the area awaiting housing, and providing residences for 30 of them is the proverbial drop in the bucket.

The experiment remains a worthy one for now. But as Vancouver moves forward with Lincoln Place, it will be important to study whether or not the program is helpful and whether or not it is effective in leading to more permanent housing for those who had been living on the streets.

Many efforts have been made over the years to address homelessness, a social issue that can be mitigated but never solved.

Ideally, Lincoln Place will prove to be a step in the right direction.