How do you solve the toughest cases of homelessness?

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People sleeping in a park in Santa Monica. Photo credit: Jan Marlyn Reesman (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In 2016, the City of Santa Monica created a team of specialists to work full-time on housing one specific subset of the homeless population: people who generate the most 911 calls.

By targeting those who use the most taxpayer-funded emergency services, city officials aimed to save both money and lives. The most expensive people are often also the most vulnerable and most likely to die on the streets without a serious intervention. Now research shows the effort is paying off.

Santa Monica’s “homeless multidisciplinary street team” is made up of social workers, mental health and medical professionals from The People Concern, a nonprofit that aims to help house people.

The team started three years ago with a list of the city’s 26 most expensive homeless people, calculated using data from the police and fire departments, as well as local hospitals. Since then, the team has permanently housed 19 people and added 11 new names to its list.

A recent study by the research organization the RAND Corporation finds that the City of Santa Monica spends approximately $600,000 a year on the multidisciplinary street team, but saves between 17% and 43% of that in avoided 911 calls.

The study predicts that those savings will grow over time — a conclusion that echoes the findings of a similar experiment in Los Angeles County a decade ago.

In late 2008, LA County Supervisors launched an effort called “Project 50” to identify and house the 50 most vulnerable, most expensive people on Skid Row.

While the program hit some early bumps (including having to expand its list to more than 100 people in order to meet its goal of housing 50), a county analysis found that Project 50 also saved money and lives. It cost about $3 million over two years, but saved approximately $3.2 million by eliminating 911 calls, hospital and jail stays.

But in May 2009, LA County’s five-member board of supervisors voted to shelve the program, partly because of concerns over its upfront costs.

Still, some of the core ideas behind Project 50 live continue in programs and policies throughout LA County. For example, “housing first,” the idea of providing homeless people with shelter as a first step rather than requiring them to seek counseling or other services first, is now widely embraced by city and county officials. In Santa Monica, the city council recently extended its street team for two more years.

Credits

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Kathryn Barnes

Reporter:
Anna Scott