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Ada County Commissioners question price tag, services at Housing First project

The Ada County Commissioners had some tough questions for officials leading the New Path Community Housing project for chronically homeless residents.

The project, which houses 49 residents and opened in November 2018, is a collaboration between the City of Boise, a private developer, the two major hospital systems in the Treasure Valley, Ada County, and several other public and private partners. As part of the original agreement, Ada County pays in alongside Saint Alphonsus Health System and St. Luke’s Health System to cover the annual cost of supportive services for New Path’s residents.

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On Wednesday, Ada County Commissioners pressed officials from Boise State University who have been evaluating the project and Terry Reilly leadership about the cost-effectiveness of the program, drug use in the building and the types of services provided on the county’s dime.

What is Housing First?

New Path is a Housing First project, a national best practice for addressing homelessness that arose under President George HW Bush in the 1990s. The concept is to provide housing along with social services, like case management, to some of the most vulnerable, chronically homeless members of a community. Experts say this stability improves the residents’ quality of life while also reducing the cost to taxpayers by reducing the residents’ jail time and days spent admitted to the hospital.

All three commissioners were skeptical of the cost of providing services, which was roughly $312,000 last year, and how much it addressed root causes of residents’ problems, like substance abuse. In the coming weeks, the commissioners will decide if they would like to fund the program in their fiscal year 2022 budget.

“Do you take the position that a certain number of clients are going to be lifetime drug users and possibly incurable, and they need permanent housing until the day they die, and your job is to make them functional alcoholics and drug users versus homeless drug addicts?” Republican Commissioner Ryan Davidson asked during the meeting.

Housing First communities, like New Path, do not require sobriety for residents to live there. Background checks are conducted when clients move in and there are serious offenses, like violence or the production of methamphetamines, that preclude someone from being eligible. Residents can be eventually evicted if they violate their lease multiple times, but the first several times someone breaks rules around substance abuse or other issues the problem is addressed with education and outreach.

Kenyon calls for more addiction services

Susie Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker who manages New Path, said many of the residents are elderly or disabled and struggle with chronic illnesses, like diabetes, mental health issues, and substance abuse. She said the supportive services have helped many residents use less, especially given the incentive of potentially being removed from housing due to lease violations.

“We see where people have months of sobriety, something happens, and they have a relapse, and it’s an ongoing and that’s a good argument for the supportive services to keep an eye on the residents and encouraging their sobriety and if they have a relapse helping them back into sobriety again,” Johnson told the commissioners. “It is a chronic condition.”

Democrat Commissioner Kendra Kenyon also had some misgivings about the project’s structure. She was disappointed that there wasn’t more of a focus on substance abuse counseling and psychiatric treatment from the staff members working at the project instead of focusing on independent living, talk therapy, and case management.

“Are we doing these people a disservice by not actively supporting the substance abuse piece of this?” she asked.

‘A good investment’

New Path isn’t just a humanitarian endeavor.

A feasibility study completed through a fellowship with the City of Boise funded by the White House and the University of Utah in 2016 estimated the project would result in net savings of community cost by housing chronically homeless county residents who most frequently have contact with emergency services. Since New Path was built, Boise State University’s Idaho Policy Institute followed up on its feasibility study. It tracked the project’s residents to see how it impacted taxpayers and the hospitals’ bottom line. 

Vanessa Fry, interim director of the Idaho Policy Institute, told the commissioners her first study of the first year of New Path’s operation found the project saved the overall community $1.3 million. This is a total cost from the residents reducing jail time, hospital visits, contacts from law enforcement, and staying in emergency shelters.

The data isn’t final for a second round to continue studying New Path’s impacts on residents, but she estimates the savings will be even more.

“From a cost-benefit analysis this is a good investment,” Fry told the commissioners. “Across the community, I would say yes it is because we’re preventing a lot more expenses down the road and we know that by looking at their past experiences. Of the individuals who did not move into New Path, I would see their costs to the community going up to the point of death.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how the feasibility study for New Path was funded. It has been corrected to reflect that it was paid for through a City of Boise fellowship funded by a grant from the White House grant and the University of Utah.

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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