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FIRST THINGS

BOISE - In 2003 the late Bill Hobson, founder and executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center or DESC, proposed converting a building at 1811 Eastlake in downtown Seattle into housing for the homeless.

DESC was an established, respected organization. A licensed mental health provider since1980, HUD reported, it operated some 400 units of housing for "the chronically homeless, many of whom were mentally-ill, chemically-dependent – or both.

But, nationally and locally,1811 Eastlake was a first-of-a-kind, pioneering a Housing First model for those The New York Times called "the unsympathetic homeless," men and women, Hobson told NPR, "passed out on the street, constantly intoxicated, urinating in doorways. That doesn't elicit a whole lot of sympathy."

Most notably the "low-barrier, harm-reduction" Housing First model meant 1811 Eastlake residents wouldn't "have to stay sober," but could instead "drink as much as" they "want." While "conventional alcohol treatment works for the overwhelming majority of alcoholics," Hobson told NPR, "for a small subset, it doesn't work."

Ka-boom!

The Seattle Times and the Downtown Business Association objected. "Owners of hotels, office buildings and several small businesses," said The Washington Post, worried the drinking ""would spill out into the streets" and "panhandling and petty crime" would "keep good people out" of the neighborhood. DESC's "Bunks for drunks," project, argued a local talk show host, is "aiding and abetting someone's self-destruction." 1811 Eastlake Residents, said a local businessman, would drink "on the state's tab.""

But then evidence to the contrary rolled-in. Over time, one study reported 1811 Eastlake residents tended to drink less, not more, than when they'd lived on the streets. It cost taxpayers less, reported a University of Washington study in The Journal of the American Medical Association, to house -homeless inebriates than to leave them on the streets to fend for themselves. The "logic" of 1811 Eastlake, Hobson told The Times, "is unassailable."

So unassailable that Housing First caught on. RurALCAP opened a similar facility in Anchorage as did the Tanana Chiefs in Fairbanks and the Affordable Housing Trust in Juneau.

And now Boise, the capital of and largest city in Idaho. Meet Vanessa Frye, of the Idaho Public Policy Research Center at Boise State University. She was commissioned by a Housing and Homelessness Roundtable convened in 2014 by Boise Mayor David Bieter, the cities of Boise and Meridian, the State and the local housing authority to determine whether Housing First and Boise were a good fit.

"I was," she told a TedxTalks audience, "blown away."

Especially by Joe's story. In his his mid-40s, he's been homeless "for a few years" and had "serious substance issues." His "poison"? Alcohol-laced hand sanitizer he lifts from pharmacies, supermarkets, even porta-potties. Drinking it, makes him violently-ill. Which is why, in a single six-month period, paramedics responded 11 times to treat him. Why he visited an emergency room "at least" 13 times. And why he spent 95 days in the county jail. All told, Frye figured, he racked-up at least $54,000 in taxpayer-funded services in just six months.

"What if," she asked, "you had 100 Joes?" Turns out tBoise almost does. Its 2014 point-in-time count of the homeless reported 94 chronically-homeless "Joes," piling up an estimated $5,346,000 in medical, emergency and enforcement services. "I was shocked," said Frye.

Especially when the estimated cost of sheltering them would be just $1.6 million a year, Frye estimated, or 70 percent less than leaving them on the streets. No wonder the Roundtable recommended that, like others, Boise open a Housing First complex for the chronically homeless. Housing First, agreed Mayor Bieter, "has proven very effective at reducing chronic homelessness in other communities."

With funding from the City, County, Idaho Housing and Finance Association, the housing authority, two medical centers and HUD, on September 20, 2017 Housing First came to Boise as the Mayor, County Commissioner Dave Case and others broke ground for New Path Community Housing, a 40-unit Housing First complex.

Seattle is as un-Boise as Boise is un-Seattle. But facing the same challenge they've both picked the same solution. Hobson and Seattle turned the world upside-down and, 15 years later, it seemed right-side up to Bieter and Boise, an approach, said The Idaho Statesman, that "makes a lot of sense," grounded as it is in " the wisdom and compassion that Housing First really means Help First."

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