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‘Belt-tightening’ at the expense of the mentally ill is counterproductive

It’s a shocking fact that over 54 percent of homeless people in the Twin Cities have a mental illness.

It’s a shocking fact that over 54 percent of homeless people in the Twin Cities have a mental illness. Helping them off the streets can be tough – but a pioneering program at People Incorporated Mental Health Services has been highly successful in working with this vulnerable population, moving scores of people out of the cold and into their own homes in just over two years. Unfortunately, this effective program, created in cooperation with the University of Minnesota’s department of psychiatry, is earmarked for elimination in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget.

Why? Because it’s easy to cut services to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. Some might argue that belt-tightening is needed across the board. But there are times when such a move is completely counterproductive – and this is one of them.   

Safe Haven Services is the cornerstone of People Incorporated’s homeless programs. Operating two houses – one each in Hennepin and Ramsey counties – it helps people with mental illness move off the streets, get psychiatric treatment, and ultimately move into stable housing. It’s been phenomenally successful – 94 percent of people placed in their own apartments or other housing over six months ago have remained in that housing.

What makes it different? People with mental illness are often the most difficult to serve, with symptoms that keep them out of shelters; paranoia, hearing voices, or aversion to people mean that most prefer to sleep outside, even in sub-zero temperatures. It takes patience and perseverance to help them, but it can be done, as People Incorporated has demonstrated.

Program saves taxpayers money
If we look at it in financial terms, People Incorporated’s Safe Haven Services saves the taxpayer millions of dollars in the associated costs of untreated mental illness – the costs of emergency rooms, addiction treatments, police services, prosecutions and jail (the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of crime, however).

It’s estimated that the average annual cost of those services – of doing nothing – per homeless individual is $40,500, according to a report prepared for the Minnesota Legislature in 2004. The cost per individual served through People Incorporated’s Safe Haven Services is $9,137 for an average stay; these individuals then move into stable housing. A much better solution – at less than one quarter the cost. 

So when it comes to making “cuts,” let’s do so in ways that actually save money. The benefits of Safe Haven Services – to vulnerable people and the public purse – go far beyond the cost of keeping it up and running.

There’s more than one way to tighten the belt. Funding Safe Haven Services is clearly one of them.

M. Tim Burkett, Ph.D., is the CEO of People Incorporated Mental Health Services.  Chuck Schulz, M.D., is the head of the Department of Psychiatry,  University of Minnesota. People Incorporated is Minnesota’s largest nonprofit dedicated to helping people with mental illness live independently in the community.