Reducing chronic homelessness

  • Updated: June 18, 2011 - 7:08 AM

Focus on funding efforts that bring long-term savings, results.

During the contentious 2011 Minnesota legislative session -- which isn't over yet -- lawmakers spent considerable time talking about reforming the way government operates. Legislators on both sides of the aisle recognize that funds are tight and that the state has to find ways to be more efficient, effective and forward-thinking.

As Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders negotiate on a budget deal, they should strive to maintain programs that have the best long-term savings and payoffs for the state.

A couple of small but effective initiatives fit that bill and provide good models. The mission at the NetWork for Better Futures is to reintegrate high-risk adults, primarily African-American men, into society. The agency works with men who have histories of incarceration, substance abuse, chronic unemployment and homelessness.

These are the hardest of the hard-to-employ -- men with prison records. They are also likely to be costly, frequent users of multiple public services as they bounce back and forth from prison throughout their adult lives. To break that cycle, the NetWork provides housing, health care, training, employment and supportive surroundings.

It creates work crews for the men and charges customers for services such as recycling, demolition, groundskeeping, refurbishing household goods and building maintenance.

In 2010, the NetWork employed 90 men, who earned $260,000 in wages. They paid taxes and child support, and many were able to live independently. And in three years, 91 percent of the participants have not reoffended. For every $1 invested, the men generate at least $3 in benefits for the community.

As a result, NetWork participants are transformed from clients of the system to wage-earners and taxpayers who are no longer dependent on public programs. The organization is seeking $2.9 million from the state.

Another example of an initiative that can turn system-drainers into contributors is Catholic Charities' Higher Ground project for the chronically homeless. Serving a similar population of adult men, the program broke ground on a new building a couple of weeks ago. When it is finished next year, the new program will serve more than 330 men with wrap-around services such as health care, job assistance and computer access.

Rather than being simply a shelter where men can come in from the cold to a mat on the floor, the facility will have beds on the first floor, and $8-per-night, pay-for-stay beds on the second floor for when residents find work. The higher floors will have private rooms and a few efficiency apartments -- so as men do better, they can stay at the same address but move to "higher ground'' and eventually out on their own.

This $18 million effort needs $12 million in state housing support to provide the services and help leverage continued contributions from more than a dozen public and private partners.

Both are examples of relatively small investments with significant long-term returns. Clearly, reducing homelessness and putting people to work is good for the future prosperity of the state.

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  • A BETTER WAY

    "Minnesota spends $33,000 per year on prisoners. ... The NetWork's early success promises that Minnesota can reverse its growing cost of corrections and reduce its return-to-prison rates. One quarter of Minnesota's ex-offenders go back to prison for a new felony. Among NetWork participants, fewer than 10 percent return.''

    PAUL KOHLS, a former Republican state representative from Victoria and current board member of the NetWork for Better Futures

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