This summer, leaders of Camden City and County plan to start moving the area's homeless population into permanent housing, which they say will keep people off the streets and reduce the public cost of caring for them.
Assembled in the sunny lobby of Cooper University Hospital on Monday, a panel including health-care providers, freeholders, and state officials announced the launch of a "housing-first" program.
The pilot program, paid for by the state, the county, and local health-care providers, will start by giving housing and support services to 50 people deemed chronically homeless or high-cost health-care users. The state Department of Community Affairs will provide vouchers to those identified for the program, which aims to keep people from returning to the streets by providing services such as medical care, drug treatment, and job training to help stabilize their lives.
Jeffrey C. Brenner, director of Cooper University's Institute of Urban Health and founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, said moving people into apartments reduces unnecessary hospitalizations and emergency room visits and arrests, and costs thousands less per person each year than using shelters.
"A homeless shelter is the equivalent of bloodletting, or not washing our hands," Brenner said. "There's no justification for continuing our current model."
Those who stay at shelters are frequently asked to leave for rules violations, such as drug relapses, which sends them back to the streets, to the hospital, or to jail. Others rely on emergency rooms for health care, officials said.
The state's poorest city, Camden has historically had a large homeless population. A survey by an advocacy group counted about 650 homeless individuals in Camden County last year, more than 100 of whom were children, but advocates say that figure may not count scores of others who live with friends or do not admit to homelessness.
Camden County freeholders will invest $100,000 in the housing-first program each year for the next three years, with additional funding from Cooper and the Virtua Foundation among health-care providers.
"People who are homeless, they can often feel alone, and like no one cares about them in the community," Freeholder Carmen G. Rodriguez said Monday. "I want to thank you all for caring."
Officials said they hoped to get the project out to bid next month, with the goal of moving people into housing in July.
Housing-first programs across the country have proven cost-effective and successful in terms of keeping individuals living indoors, said Brenner, with a retention rate of over 86 percent. Unlike many shelters, which require individuals to be drug-free to secure a bed, the model provides shelter first, then treats the client in a stable, permanent environment.
In many communities, including Philadelphia, the programs have focused on helping homeless veterans. Pathways to Housing PA, a housing-first specialist that has been operating in Philadelphia for five years, works with 130 veterans who suffer from combat trauma or lack workplace skills.
"We know that housing-first works," said Janel Winter, director of housing at the New Jersey Department of Human Services. "These services keep people in their homes."