Our Wednesday speaker, Cindy Murphy Kelley, is the Executive Director, since January of this year, of the Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless (CSAH), whose mission is to "lead the effort to build and sustain community practices to eliminate homelessness."  There are 4193 homeless people in Savannah, she told us, and the number has not changed in the past 20 years. This number does not include 142 families who are living in hotels.  Since the population of the city of Savannah has not changed much in that time (newcomers come to places outside the city), we must face the fact that we have an intractable problem which 20 years' efforts have failed to address with any success.

 

Cindy proceeded to tell us about the homeless and what it is costing the community to try to help them now.  Of the 4193 homeless people, 2126 (51%) are men, 1305 women (31%) and the remainder young males and females.  Their racial background is predominantly African American (66%).  They collectively present substantial challenges to those who would help them.  They live with the miserable economic reality that they cannot obtain or hold a job.  Some are returning veterans with health and/or other problems. Some are former felons whom the community does not welcome. Many suffer from mental illness or substance abuse.  Most have multiple issues which consist of combinations of the previously listed problems.  There is no housing available in Savannah that they could afford and the city/Chatham County have 8000 people waiting for affordable housing.  These homeless people are severely compromised, Cindy said, and we have to accept them as they are.  They pursue a sad path from the shelters to the streets to the jail to the shelter to the hospital and back to the streets. The community doesn't understand and is known to ask, "why don't they find a job?"

The present system of helping these people costs $31,000 a year per person; that is, in total, over $19 million per year.  In 20 years, the cost has been of the order of $380 million.  Who pays?  The answer is, the non-profits (to which many citizens contribute), police budgets, hospitals (who do not receive any reimbursement for treating them), courts and jails, congregations (many contribute substantially), and corporations via donations.  The hierarchy of needs for each homeless individual are, food, shelter, warmth, sleep, and protection, that is, security and safety. There are also personal needs such as belonging, self esteem, and dignity, which all lack.

It has been proposed to build inexpensive pre-fabricated housing at a cost of $10,000 - $20,000 each unit and to give this housing to each homeless person.  The community cry may be, "Why should we give it to them for free?"  But it makes economic sense.  They can be monitored in housing to keep them out of the street/jail/shelter/hospital loop, to keep them healthier and safe.  The proposal suggests giving this housing first to veterans (the Veterans' Administration does help, but not enough to provide for those on the street.)

Cindy proposed a New Vision:  First the community must be taught to accept economic reality, that is, these people cannot just "go and get a job."  The community must be taught that the current approach, tried for twenty years, does not work. It must be taught that the current approach is simply an on-going stop-gap, and it is very expensive.  Other cities, Cindy said, are trying new approaches, alternatives to those which have demonstrated their uselessness.The new mission is to build community understanding, to promote new actions including changing some current practices (such as zoning), and to shift current funding streams to support these new actions.

Answering questions, Cindy said that the CSAH staff has not encountered violence against themselves while visiting/talking to homeless people. The Veterans' Administration provides cash vouchers to vets in need.  She thanked us for our attention and told us to contact her with any further questions.

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