There’s an area right behind my apartment complex in Ann Arbor where four people spend most of their time. A couple of worn chairs, empty bottles and trash cans make up their living space. From what I’ve gathered, these guys really like to drink. On the nights when they drink until they can no longer stand, I debate whether to call an ambulance out of concern for their lives. I always end up ignoring their drunken stumbles and look the other way because I know that calling 911 would probably mean having them thrown in jail. But might they be better off in jail than drinking in my alley, anyway?
These people outside my apartment are homeless, and they have been for a while. The Department of Health and Human Services would most likely classify them as “chronically homeless” – a term for those who have been without a home for a more than a year or have experienced long-term homelessness multiple times. Chronically homeless people are usually the regulars at shelters and soup kitchens. They are almost twice as likely to suffer from psychological or physical disorders. And while the characteristics of chronically homeless people are often the ones associated with the entire homeless community, they make up only 10 percent of the homeless population. Eighty percent of homeless people are unsheltered for less than three weeks – most as little as one or two days – and are typically able to find money to pay rent again or move in with a friend or relative.
But the people who live behind my apartment, and many others like them, aren’t so lucky. The number of people who are homeless on any given night has gone up since the late 1980s and remains high despite increased federal funding, like the $28.5 billion designated for homeless programs in 2006.
Yet instead of pointing the finger at the slow economy or the minimum wage, which remains well below the cost of living, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine say a rise in substance abuse is to blame. They found that more than 85 percent of homeless people who abuse alcohol were diagnosed with an alcohol disorder in the year before they became homeless. Alcoholism is the most common disorder for the chronically homeless – more common than schizophrenia or depression. And, whether due to the expenses of living an alcoholic lifestyle or the inability to find a place to take them in, they remain on the streets, continuing their habits.
Other research shows that chronically homeless people have extensive histories of involvement in government-funded programs, like shelters and food banks, before they become classified as chronically homeless. Clearly, the programs the government has developed to counter homelessness and the money it has spent has done little to attack the root causes of homelessness or address specific problems, like alcoholism.
What the chronically homeless deserve is permanent supportive housing that does not discriminate against alcoholics or drug abusers. We must come to terms with the fact that a large percentage of those in need of permanent housing have substance abuse problems and they cannot completely kick their habits and move into shelters. And, since homeless people cite lack of affordable housing as the primary reason they stay homeless, there is certainly a demand for permanent housing.
Placing homeless people in supportive housing has also proven economically viable. A study in New York City showed the amount spent on a homeless person for the two years after he was placed in a permanent housing facility was significantly lower than the amount spent on him during the two previous years, which is about $11,000 annually (mostly due to healthcare expenses).
Pouring billions of dollars into the homeless-shelter system does a lot for those who need time to relocate after they are forced to leave their homes. It also provides food to the hungry and a warm shelter in the winter. But this money fails to help the chronically homeless, the people who need shelter for more than the typical 90-day maximum stay at facilities, and who need help breaking their drinking habits.
It’s not a bigger shelter or another food bank that’s going to help the people who call my alley their home. It’s a permanent residence with functional support programs and physicians who address their problems that’s going to help these people start their lives over.
Kennelly can be reached at email@example.com.