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For Homeless, A Home May Be The Best Rehab

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For Homeless, A Home May Be The Best Rehab

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For Homeless, A Home May Be The Best Rehab

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Major cities across the country are putting a controversial new idea to the test. It has to do with getting homeless people off the streets. And according to a new study, it actually works.

The name of the approach says it all: Housing First. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The traditional way to help chronically homeless people is to get them into a temporary shelter, help them get sober or deal with a psychiatric illness. And then, once that hard work is done, they're ready to find a place to live.

Housing First turns all that upside down. It finds the permanent place to live first. It doesn't matter if the homeless person is still drinking or using drugs because having a home is considered therapeutic by itself. And that's when case workers can best help someone with their problems.

That makes sense to Richard Corbett.

Mr. RICHARD CORBETT: This is home. The first time I came in here, I couldn't believe it because I had been on the street about a year at the time.

SHAPIRO: Now, he lives in this sparse, two-room apartment with high, white ceilings in a solid row house in Washington, D.C. Corbett's 61. He's got a kind of Kris Kringle look with long, white hair and a bushy beard.

He's struggled with depression and alcoholism. When he lived on the scary streets and in shelters, he says he'd drink just to fall asleep. He doesn't have to do that anymore.

Mr. CORBETT: I think the safety of having a place that I could fall asleep on my own without having to force myself to go to sleep and not have to worry about being hit in the night with a brick upside the head and being robbed, something like that.

SHAPIRO: Corbett says he doesn't drink very often now and only moderately when he does. Staff at Pathways to Housing got him into this apartment and then got him counseling.

Mary Larimer is a clinical psychologist at the University of Washington. She studied a 75-unit apartment building for homeless people in Seattle because it used the Housing First approach and because it had created controversy.

Ms. MARY LARIMER (Clinical Psychologist, University of Washington): The controversy is that there are a number of individuals who feel that it's important to use housing as a carrot and that by housing people who are not yet ready or able to stop their addictive behaviors and allowing them to continue to drink alcohol in the house that you - that we would be reducing their chances of sobriety or in some ways would be enabling them.

SHAPIRO: So Larimer and her co-researchers studied the people who lived at the building called 1811 Eastlake. It takes on some of the hardest homeless people to help, those who are constantly on the streets and drunk.

The research appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and it finds that their drinking dropped steadily over the first year they had their own apartments, from on average about 16 drinks a day to about 11.

That's still a lot of booze, but even a small drop made a big difference. The study tracked down records of the time they spent in detox, in hospitals and jail and then compared how much government spent on them versus those still living on the streets. Larimer found the cost savings were enormous, about $2,500 less per person per month.

Ms. LARIMER: Ultimately, abstinence is the safest goal and the desirable goal. I also think that there are people who are not in a position to attain abstinence immediately and that certainly people's chances of becoming abstinent are a lot better when they are in a warm, safe environment, and they have lots of caring people and services available to them immediately.

SHAPIRO: Back at his home, Richard Corbett points out the pots in the front yard where he's getting ready to plant flowers.

Mr. CORBETT: I'm in a much better place than before I got this place. It's just, it's a feeling of respect and dignity that I didn't have before.

SHAPIRO: Most programs for homeless people don't use a Housing First model, but it's spread in recent years to more than a dozen major U.S. cities. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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