Homes for the Homeless, Bargains for Everyone

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Until the past few weeks, Darian Holton and Catherine Bellamy were a big part of why medical care costs a fortune.

Holton, who was homeless for eight years, was the city's 911 king. He called for an ambulance 270 times last year, quite possibly a municipal record.

"They put you out of the shelters regardless of if it's hot, cold, raining, whatever," says Holton, 31. With nothing to do all day, "I went to the emergency room. It's warm. Certain hospitals, I could play the psychiatric card -- get admitted for a couple of days. At least, I could sit around for a couple of hours and watch television."

Nurses and ambulance drivers citywide know Bellamy, who until last month lived on the sidewalks near George Washington University. When she needed an indoor respite, she made her way to one of the District's emergency rooms.

" 'Here come Miss Bellamy,' they'd say -- they know me at every hospital," says Bellamy, 54. "I used the hospital as my relief. It was where I could get some warmth."

Christy Respress, director of programs at Pathways to Housing, a nonprofit agency that works to take homeless people off the streets, says Bellamy would "go in for four or five days, get discharged and go straight to the next hospital."

Bellamy hasn't been back in the hospital and Holton hasn't been calling for an ambulance since the District's Housing First program put them in apartments of their own this fall. They still have severe health problems, but now they have regular doctor visits and caseworkers who check whether they're taking their meds. More important, they're eating well and sleeping full nights for the first time in years.

Mayor Adrian Fenty's Housing First initiative has placed more than 385 of the city's 6,000 homeless men and women in subsidized apartments this year, making a noticeable dent in the population of panhandlers on downtown streets. It's expensive to rent all those apartments, and the nonprofit agencies that care for the formerly homeless don't come cheap, either.

But compare the cost of the new strategy -- about $67 a day for each homeless person who's given an apartment -- to the cost of a day in the ER ($3,085) or the mental hospital ($435) or the jail ($105), according to D.C. government statistics.

"This is one of the only good things to come out of the Bush years," says Tommy Wells, the D.C. Council member who is chairman of the human services committee. "Conservatives like it because it saves money, and it's far more humane than leaving people out on the street. And it goes straight to the issue of people seeing panhandlers on the street downtown."

So why did the council move last week to halt expansion of Housing First?

With the city facing a $130 million shortfall, council members sliced that much from Fenty's budget and froze an additional $46 million in planned spending, including about a third of the money that had been set aside to house about 400 more homeless people in the next six months.

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