Supportive housing is the label applied to more than 30,000 New York City residences that come with live-in professionals providing support services to their tenants. These residences are operated by nonprofits, and the services they provide include employment services, individual and family therapy, and treatment for the mentally ill, to name a few. The primary goal of supportive housing is to house the chronically homeless, however, supportive housing programs have positive impacts on a variety of populations, the effects of which reverberate back to the nonprofits that serve them.
People who lose their homes are exposed to a horde of other challenges. For example, let’s assume that people who lose their homes spend more time outdoors, exposed to the elements. Exposure to rain and cold make it more likely that people will get sick, increasing their need for emergency or nonprofit medical care. Sickness, as well as the logistical inconveniences of not having a home (no shower access, no place to keep and maintain clothing), can make it impossible to hold down a job, which increases the need for employment services. Without a job and steady income, paying for food can be a struggle, leading to more people using soup kitchens and food pantries. In desperation, some people may turn to crime, like shoplifting or drug dealing. This group runs the risk of arrest or addiction, two conditions that reinforce unemployment, sickness, and homelessness, and introduce a need for legal assistance and substance abuse treatment. At any point in this chain, people may lose or give up their children, increasing the need for child care and foster care services. To review, the chronically homeless can be chronic users of child care, foster care, medical care, substance abuse treatment, employment services, food pantries, soup kitchens, and legal assistance, in addition to basic shelter services.
The chronic nature of the homeless’ use of these services deserves special emphasis because it is contrary to the goals of the nonprofit sector. Unlike every other sector of the economy, many organizations in the nonprofit sector work to put themselves out of business. Their services are designed not only to satisfy their clients’ needs, but to eliminate them altogether (e.g. substance abuse treatment). Only in this unique market is a return customer (i.e. chronic user) a bad thing. A chronic user defeats the purpose of these services and pinballs from service to service without addressing the root cause of the person’s need for assistance.
For many chronic users of these support services, homelessness is the root cause of their need. Homelessness acts as an anchor, holding them in place, whether that place is unemployment, imprisonment, sickness, or addiction. Nonprofits whose purpose is to fix an issue rather than treat it would be better served using resources on other clients whose issues they can fully address. By offering the chronically homeless a stable, safe living environment, we can kill the chronic nature of their use of other services, positively affecting the work of every nonprofit involved. Supportive housing is also an extremely good investment, as it addresses the chronic nature of homelessness while saving millions of dollars each year. For every person that leaves the streets to live in supportive housing, the City saves an average of $10,100 per person, per year. For every psychiatric patient that moves into supportive housing from a state-run psychiatric facility, the City saves $77,425 per patient, per year.
Contrary to the character of the preceding text, homelessness is not a hypothetical problem. Some of our neighbors suffer its effects every day. Collected here are stories of several New Yorkers’ battles with homelessness that include how their lives improved after they became tenants in supportive housing.
– Alberto committed a robbery as a teen and spent five years in prison. Four days after he was released, he committed another crime so he could go back to prison, rather than being on the street. For the next 14 years, Alberto’s life would be dominated by homelessness and addiction. He was arrested at least 60 times, making frequent stops at Riker’s Island. In 2008, Alberto sobered up and began living in supportive housing run by the nonprofit Palladia. Since then, Alberto has trained in building maintenance and boiler repair, remained drug-free, and lived a healthy, safe life with Palladia.
– Jacqueline spent ten years with her son, Mark, shuttling between prisons, court hearings, interventions, and shelters as she struggled with drug addiction. In 2003, Jacqueline persuaded a judge to let her go into inpatient rehab and supportive housing rather than prison. Her supportive housing program, Sojourner House at Pathstone, helped Jacqueline move past her addiction. Her son Mark flourished, winning one scholarship to a prestigious all-boys high school, and then another to St. Lawrence University.
– As a young man, Jamie was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His mother, a New Yorker who emigrated from Barbados, was overwhelmed and felt unable to care for him. Jaime then became homeless, splitting time between shelters, hospitals, and the streets. In 2004, Jaime moved into the Institute for Community Living’s Myrtle and Lewis Residence. With help from the staff, he enrolled in support groups and rehabilitation training. He picked up a job, saved enough to move into his own apartment, and enrolled part-time at a local college.
Supportive housing programs do good work for the people and nonprofits of New York. They help individuals with seemingly intractable problems achieve a higher quality of life. Their services address the root cause behind the needs of chronic service users in many different areas. Supportive housing programs strengthen the entire nonprofit sector by resolving the problems of chronic service users.
To learn more, Ted Houghton, executive director of Supportive Housing Network of New York, was on our radio show Human Services News and Views on June 19th, WVOX 1460 AM. You can listen online here: http://www.humanservicescouncil.org/podcasts.php
Contributed by Zack Manley of the Human Services Council.
 City Government Evaluation of the NY/NY III Supportive Housing, p. 2 http://shnny.org/images/uploads/NY-NY-III-Interim-Report.pdf
 Supportive Housing Network, Tenant Profiles, http://shnny.org/learn-more/real-stories/albertos-story/