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Housing the Homeless Without Giving Them Services: Innovative or Unethical?

by Eryn-Ashlei Bailey on August 2, 2010

Los Angeles Skid Row

Project 50, a service program launched by the L.A.’s county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, was an initiative¬† to find and house 50 of skid row’s worst homeless cases. The motive of “housing first” aimed to find housing for vagrants of the 50 square foot block along L.A.’s notorious skid row. Candidates for Project 50 weren’t mandated to receive psychiatric or substance abuse treatment. They were handed a key to modest living quarters for a meager 30% of their monthly income.

Cliff Butler, a 52 year old man with bi-polar disorder and a $150.00 daily crack habit, financed his addiction through shining fancy cars. “This ain’t a bunch of mental midgets. Even the mentally ill have developed a con or hustle” Butler told the L.A. Times. Clearly, skid row’s homeless aren’t completely incapacitated. But, their skill and employment is vested in drug-seeking behavior. These individuals have one goal in mind-their next fix.

Addicts like Butler have procured funds for their illicit habits in various ways. These means may be legal or illegal in nature. For women, these practices are sexual exchanges that leave women vulnerable to sexual attack. Wanda Hammand¬† who suffered from mental illness is an example of one of Project 50′s vulnerable women.Women who enter the Project 50 program are at risk for trauma, untreated STD’s (as are men), and other physical ailments that can affect their mental health.

Realistically, candidates in this 2 year $3.6 million “housing first” plan are ushered into living quarters to save taxpayers dollars. Treating the nuances (i.e., social impairment, helplessness, and social service needs) was glossed over by the plan. In essence, the Project 50 initiative addressed the monetary concerns of tax payers at the negligence to the neediest and bleakest cases of L.A.’s skid row. One must question who the Project 50 plan really aimed to help, the needy or the greedy?

“If they are substance abusers or suffering from mental health problems, they will not be able to transition into an independent housing program that doesn’t provide other services” said Martha Ayano, a nurse practitioner who provides direct care for the homeless for Project 50.

Questions that arise from this project: Is it responsible to house former drug abuser in a neighborhood laden with the sights and smells of their former drug habit?  Should we feel sorry for individuals thrust into independence who clearly are not capable of caring for themselves? Was Project 50 a noble endeavor or an ethical error?

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