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In these tough economic times, more Montanans are living in shelters or passing out in our downtown alleys. How do we curb this epidemic?

This question is being asked by the Montana Legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee. Two bills originally introduced by Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, and supported by bipartisan members of that committee, have now been partnered with graduate-level social work students from the University of Montana, guided by their professor, Danielle Wozniak, in recommending that state-run institutions, such as our state prisons and state mental hospital, discontinue its practice of discharging at-risk individuals directly into homelessness, including violent sex offenders and seriously mentally ill patients.

Put simply, the state is being asked to no longer discharge mentally ill patients onto our streets or release sex offenders to an “address” that currently can include “under the Higgins Street Bridge” or to local homeless shelters. We are asking the state to require housing plans to community re-entry.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 60 percent of all people with serious mental illnesses have experienced homelessness or have been at risk of becoming homeless at some point in their lives. Housing is said to be the single greatest obstacle for felons who have served their time and need a job and a place to live. Those suffering from mental illness or who have been incarcerated have limited access to housing. Because of funding cuts, Montana’s state hospitals and correctional facilities may be forced to release Montanans into homelessness.

Lack of low-income housing has led to a statewide waiting list in Montana of more than 8,200 people. Unfortunately, most public housing and private landlords screen citizens with a criminal record. This leaves individuals who are exiting the Montana State hospital and correctional facilities with even fewer options, making them more likely to become homeless and to be at greater risk of reoffending.

In Bozeman, a man froze to death in his U-haul truck because he had nowhere to live. In Kalispell, growing numbers of homeless families are living in temporary housing. In Helena, 69 adults and 22 children slept outside on a single night in January 2010. In Missoula, sex offenders have been permitted or resorted to listing the Wal-Mart parking lot, the Kim Williams Trail, and under the Higgins Avenue Bridge as a permanent address.

Homelessness costs our community in both safety and public funds. One chronically homeless individual costs the community an average of $15,000 per year in crisis centers, emergency care, jail and shelter care. Individuals who are chronically homeless cost our system, on average, $125,000, and 10 percent of the “chronically homeless” account for over half of all public expenditures. In 2006, $136 million was spent on charity care by the 10 largest hospitals in Montana. In Missoula alone, hospitals spend an annual amount of $18.6 million in charity care. Conversely, the total taxpayer cost decreases by 86 percent when the same individual lives in permanent supportive housing. We are spending money in the wrong places.

Research has shown that permanent supportive housing is the most effective tool at our disposal in decreasing the cost of care for the homeless. According to one congressional report, 26 percent of all sheltered homeless persons have severe mental illness, but only about 6 percent of homeless persons with mental illness actually require hospitalization. In other words, most people suffering from mental illness can live in the community if they are provided with supportive housing options. Rockefeller Foundation data indicates a 50 percent decrease in jail time when people are housed. When individuals move from the streets into permanent, supportive housing, an impressive 90 percent remain housed.

Experts on both sides of the aisle agree housing plans lead to greater self-sufficiency – and, it is the right thing to do. These bills are a first step in reducing homelessness for the most at-risk members of our community, and they lay the groundwork for huge reductions in recidivism, increases in patient-centered discharge planning, and will create safer, more livable communities throughout Montana.

Let’s stop asking how many sex offenders are living at the Poverello Center or under the Higgins Avenue Bridge. Instead, let’s start changing a system that is sending them there.

 

State Rep. Ellie Hill; UM Department of Social Work professor Danielle Wozniak; and students from the Department of Social Work Rachel Cutler, Mollie Devlin, Jonas Ehudin, Eli Karinen, Erica Noble, Barbara Schott, Claire Sherwood and Elizabeth Urschel contributed to this opinion.

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