The best thing the City and the community of Evanston can do for the nearly 10 percent of its population that is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless is to provide them permanent housing, according to the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness.

At a special City Council meeting on April 16, co-chairs Sue Calder and Karen Singer presented the findings of the 22-member task force.

Placing people in stable housing, with a roof over their head and a key to the front door, enables them to address the issues that led them to become homeless …

The task force recommended that City Council adopt the “Housing First” model, which they said studies show can end rather than simply “manage” homelessness. The plan has two prongs: re-housing and prevention – getting homeless persons into stable homes as quickly as possible and providing a safety net for those at risk of being homeless to prevent them from falling into homelessness.

The Housing First plan, which the City Council officially adopted that evening, can end homelessness here within five years, according to the task force.

“Placing people in stable housing, with a roof over their head and a key to the front door, enables them to address the issues that led them to become homeless,” Ms. Calder said.

Ms. Singer and Ms. Calder also presented the task force’s call for community action, “Heading Home,” that recommends more efficient rather than additional use of City and community resources.

Homelessness: The Numbers and the Funnel

As defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “homeless” persons are not only those in temporary shelters and on the street but also those “doubled up” – sleeping in basements or on floors or couches of friends or family.

By that standard, an estimated 7,500 persons, or 10 percent of the City’s population – including about 300 public school students – are homeless, the task force found.

The task force said a 2007 analysis by the Evanston Alliance on Homelessness described homelessness as a funnel, “broad at one end, representing the at-risk population and narrowing down to a neck, representing those living on the street. … About 80 percent in the funnel are those at-risk of becoming homeless and 20 percent are actually homeless.”

People who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent or who face domestic violence are examples of those who “face an uncertain financial future. These people are forced to make compromises on their spending for health care, food, education, etc. Many are underemployed or unemployed. In harsh economic times such as these, this means that there is a constant pressure pushing more people into the funnel,” the report stated.

Housing First

“Housing First has been a best practice dating back 10 years,” Ms. Singer said. “It differs somewhat from how homelessness has been addressed in the past,” because homeless persons will immediately be given stable housing instead of being weaned from homelessness through a series of temporary shelters.

The six recommendations for Heading Home, the Evanston model, are

• establishing a housing and homeless commission,

• making housing affordable and developing more affordable housing for the homeless and those at risk of homelessness,

• coordinating the community response for increased capacity and efficiency,

• creating more job opportunities and vocational training,

• targeting existing resources toward proven strategies and leveraging additional funding, and educating the public, through community outreach, about solutions to homelessness.

Both Ms. Calder and Ms. Singer said the plan could be implemented without additional staff time or cost to the City. “The use of City resources will not be increased, but [they will be] used more efficiently,” said Ms. Calder.

Council Discussion

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, asked whether data were available to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Housing First model. Paul Selden, executive director of Connections, said several studies about the model could be found on the HUD website (portal.HUD.gov) “Most research has been done on the chronically homeless, which is about 10 percent of the overall [homeless] population,” he said.

Mr. Selden said a person living on the street will cost a community about $50,000 per year. In the first year or two the person is in stable housing the cost is about the same, he said, but use of emergency rooms, hospitals, police and other social services decreases. After that, he said, “the cost drops dramatically. Housing First makes that happen.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asked, “Since we have been dealing with homelessness since 1984, ‘85 or ‘86, how do we measure our successes?”

Ms. Singer said the commission, if created, would be “data-driven.” The commission will set benchmarks to be held accountable.

Ald. Rainey also said, “The Township of Evanston provides housing support. … If the Township is dissolved, we should recognize that one of the things we should do is serve the homeless.”

“A five-year timeline to end homelessness,” said Ald. Grover. “Is that overly ambitious, ambitious or underestimating what we can do?” she asked.

Ms. Singer said, “It is ambitious, and it is really important for us to be ambitious. It sets a high bar for us to really work hard … and it is doable.”