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Doug McMullin: An open letter to anyone tired of homelessness

I am now familiar with many of the homeless on our Redding streets. I know them by name and they know me. Our nurses, caseworkers, students and residents know them. They are our patients.

Francine (name is changed) is 72 years old. She is my patient. She has lived her "todays" in the Redding streets and on its riverbanks for 20 years. Francine is broken today; she is tired, hungry and doesn't know how to change today. She sleeps on the rocks under a bridge. Francine is one of us. She hurts, she bleeds - and does not want to be on the street today. But another day has come - and she just needs to survive today.

Among the rocks and pigeons by the river, a target for thugs who live in houses, Francine may live a few more months. Her need for shelter is real and cannot wait for applications, waiting lists and websites. Francine needs first to be housed - soon. I have no medicine for this. I have nowhere to take her - nothing sustainable - today.

If supportive housing (housing with case workers) existed in our community, I could give Francine (and John and May and Rose and Wayne and Skip) the medicine she needs today - a place to stay that is warm and safe - with a case worker to check on her every two to three days. She will need to have this case worker "coach." Physical, emotional and bureaucratic barriers stand in her way. She has forgotten how to do life this way. Francine has learned to survive "today"- but now needs to learn about preparing for "tomorrow."

With supportive housing, Francine pays 30 percent of her income for rent or $50, whichever is more. She agrees to behave and not bother her neighbors. Francine's chances of rising above her mental health problems increase dramatically when she has a stable place to live. She may even be able to carry a small job and begin saving for some items for her apartment. Francine will be off the street; this is the medicine she needs. Today.

Last year, Francine cost our community $30,000 living on the street. Emergency rooms, law enforcement, emergency response - over and over. The cost of supportive housing with a case worker is half that. Regardless of the financial columns and accounting that seem to paralyze our city and county discussions on this topic, the bottom line is: "The taxpayer will pay the bill." The cost of doing nothing is higher than the cost of doing something.

At first glance, fiscally minded leaders bristle at the thought of "giving someone a place to live." Understandably. But those same careful mayors, civic leaders and council members have become some of Housing First's most ardent supporters. As they dig deeper, they understand that this is not a "give-away" but actually a wise investment.

In 2001, the Bush administration endorsed Housing First as official policy. Between 2005-07 national chronic homelessness dropped 30 percent, and from 2007 to 2013 another 19 percent due to Housing First models. During that time, communities across the nation have followed suit. Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake, Boise, Portland and yes, Medicine Hat, Alberta, have adopted Housing First as their plan for homelessness. These communities reduced homelessness and saved money. San Jose has set a goal to end homelessness by 2020. Housing First works.

Supportive housing models like Housing First can "teach a man to fish." As clinical psychologist Sam Tsemberis notes in the March 20, 2014 edition of American Conservative, "Over time most recipients of free housing take responsibility for their lives. Once they have the stability of housing, they can beat addiction, manage mental illness, seek more education, or find employment. Housing, critically, must come first."

Redding is one of the most caring and generous communities I have experienced, and just like Francine, my home for 25 years. I believe we can clean up our downtown and our riverbanks. I believe we can work together for something good. I believe we can allow our law enforcement to focus on serious crimes. I believe we can help Francine find her best self - and along the way, so will we.

Dr. Doug McMullin works with the Shasta Community Health Center.

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