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Newsletter: Tough Questions

Oct 1, 2009 5:46:00 AM / by Tim McCarthy

Social issues such as homelessness are complex and chronic and since they have not been solved using traditional means, innovative and measured new approaches, such as “Housing First” are worth trying. [more]

Every other month at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State, we gather 50 or so for-profit and non-profit executives and a smattering of students and professors to dialogue about the "business of good."

So far, we've had a pretty interesting time of it since all of our speakers are real executives immersed in the real challenges of doing good. Studying social business for a few years now I realize that it is not for the faint of heart.

This month, we enjoyed a fascinating hour at The Business of Good Forum with Jerry Skoch, CEO of Cleveland's West Side Catholic Center. www.wsccenter.org

I call it fascinating because Jerry brought us a very tough question and he was also asked some tough questions. One of the first Jerry was asked was:

Q. What percentage of the poor in Cleveland does your non-profit actually impact?

This I consider the "despair" question. It's one that every non-profit executive certainly asks themselves in times of difficulty. That is, is it really worth banging my head against the wall when the problems are so massive?

Jerry's answer, based in the classic old story, was, "We try to throw one starfish back in the ocean at a time. And while I think the poor may always be with us, I believe that homelessness is a solvable problem."

The non-profit Jerry leads, the West Side Catholic Center (WSCC), performs many ministries for the poor of Cleveland but Jerry focused his presentation to us on the homeless issue. And here's the question he brought:

"Which comes first?

Getting addicts into homes so they can get straight? Or

Getting addicts straight so they can get into homes?"

Jerry's answer, and that of the WSCC, is the same as a national movement called Housing First. Besides seeing housing as a basic human right, Housing First believes that case management is more effective once the homeless family is in safe, clean shelter.

That is, even if there is mental illness and/or addiction, which in most homeless cases are present, bring them into safe housing first, then work on their problems.

This approach is directly in contrast to the traditional approach, which has always been: "Clean up your act first then we'll help you get housing."

Indeed, it's a tough question which most urban areas are struggling to answer.

In Seattle, there is a project known as 1811 Eastlake. To local critics it's known as Bunks for Drunks.

1811 Eastlake is a 75 unit apartment building built by the city and HUD to house chronic alcoholics with the idea that it costs less to house them safely than it does to have them in jails and emergency rooms. No requirement at all is made to clients to reduce or stop their drinking.

This model is based on a strict measurable business proposition: Will the $13,000 per person, per year cost to house someone at 1811 Eastlake be less expensive to the city than what they now spend in emergency services for the same 75 homeless?

The jury is still out.

Zacchaeus Housing Solutions, WSCC's Cleveland initiative, is more moderate. The Zacchaeus mission states that they "prioritize acceptance to individuals who can sustain employment or financial resources necessary to become self-sufficient within 12 to 24 months."

That seems to make a lot more sense to me.

Zacchaeus currently houses 32 families (130 men, women and children) and I expect its results over time to be more like the more typical model - the Denver First Housing Collaborative, which I found by "Googling" when I got home. (Yes, I check everything that's discussed in these columns.☺)

Operated by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, they provide housing to more than 200 chronically homeless individuals. A 2006 cost study documented a significant reduction in the use and cost of emergency services by program participants as well as increased health status. Emergency room visits and costs were reduced by an average of 34.3 percent. Hospital inpatient costs were reduced by 66 percent. Detox visits were reduced by 82 percent. Incarceration days and costs were reduced by 76 percent. 77 percent of those entering the program continued to be housed in the program after two years.

So, does an addict need to get straight before we help? Or should we house them to help them get straight?

Helping first (Housing First) is a non-traditional approach that is based on some additional non-traditional thoughts that Jerry covered in his talk.

The first was what he called the guiding principles:

  1. Stop blaming
  2. Reduce harm

Pretty stimulating to me, a person who has long believed that homeless addicts need only look at themselves for their problems.

How's that attitude for blaming and making sure no harm is reduced?

Jerry also said that at their center they use a "trauma informed service approach" to their clients. That is, instead of asking, "What's wrong with you?" they ask, "What happened to you?" His point is, of course, that lost, drunken, hopeless human beings didn't start out that way. In fact, he shared one of his client's stories with us and it sounded a lot like a few people I know.

Whether we agree with these approaches or not, what I respect about people like Jerry is that are using these approaches to poverty and homelessness every day in the trenches. Jerry was not speaking to us from an Ivory Tower, he and the good folks of WSCC and Zaccheaus deal with these seemingly unanswerable questions right where "the rubber meets the road." That is, among the poor and voiceless of our city.

Me? I stay up here in the Tower - I have neither the patience nor the strength to deal with the things that people like Jerry's team and the International Partners in Mission folks and our other partners deal with so well.

And they appreciate what our team does to serve them.

And therein lies the point of these forums and this eletter and www.thebusinessofgood.org:

That we may all find how we can most effectively "bloom where we're planted."

Tags: Newsletter, Program Measurement, Social Business

Tim McCarthy

Written by Tim McCarthy

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