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making a quantifiable difference

Posts from — March 2012

“housing first” approach to homelessness

Politifact (prompted by an appearance of HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan on The Daily Show)  just did a detailed cost analysis of something I’ve been meaning to cover for some time — the “housing first” approach to helping the homeless:

Pioneered in the 1990s in New York City, it puts street dwellers in publicly subsidized rooms of their own and connects them with drug treatment, job placement and psychiatric services with the goal of stabilizing their lives. Unlike many treatment programs, housing-first initiatives don’t require participants to get sober first.

“Housing first is a kind of ‘come as you are’ approach. We encourage folks to accept services, and as a result people change their behaviors,” said Brenda Rosen, executive director of Common Ground, a housing-first homelessness program in New York City.

The approach succeeds and saves money, advocates say, because it targets the chronically homeless — those who have been homeless for a year or more and commonly suffer from addiction or mental illness. That segment of the homeless population uses expensive public services at very high rates — emergency rooms, police and fire, and courts.

According to Politifact, former homelessness policy czar under George W. Bush, Philip Mangano, analyzed homelessness costs and housing first costs across many cities.

“We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” he said.

Other studies have also shown drastic reductions (up to 80%) in hospital visits, detox visits, and incarceration rates.

What’s more, a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that savings increase over time as a person stays housed longer.  Additionally, despite the lack of rules around substance use, alcohol consumption decreases over time.

Housing first programs have a high tenant retention rate — often around 80% for 6 months.  It was largely the push for such programs that led to an impressive drop or 30% in U.S. homelessness rates from 2005 to 2007.

Despite the strong evidence in favor of “housing first”, most cities and programs do not take this approach.  It remains controversial, both from those who think that people who abuse substances don’t deserve housing, and from those who believe it is an impractical approach:

Elizabeth Epstein, research professor at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, disputes that approach. She says alcoholism is an addiction that is not irreversible and that putting people together in a drinking environment makes it much harder for them to quit.

“Honestly, the idea doesn’t make any sense to me,” she says. “I think that money would be better spent by providing them treatment and not allowing them to drink in their living quarters.”

Based on the evidence of effectiveness, I think there is little doubt that we should lobby for housing first approaches in areas that don’t currently have them, and make sure they are sufficiently well-funded in areas that do.  Housing first improves the lives of people who have been living on the streets, and it saves tax payers money — a rare win-win situation.

March 15, 2012   2 Comments

fuel efficiency of electric vs. gas cars

I’ve been considering whether to buy an electric car as my next vehicle.  I found this detailed analysis at Do The Math really interesting and useful.  Key points:

On the surface, electric cars are a lot more efficient than gas-powered cars.

The MPG equivalent of [the Volt, Leaf, and Tesla energy consumption] is approximately 80, 110, and 170, respectively. All are much better deals than gasoline cars deliver, primarily because the electrical drive system is far more efficient than the typical 20% gasoline engine.

However, when charging a car like the Leaf, the source of the electricity is important.

Two-thirds of our electricity comes from fossil fuel plants, typically converting 35% of the fossil fuel thermal energy into electricity. Only 90% of this makes it through the transmission system, on average. If your electricity comes from a fossil fuel plant, the 30 kWh delivered to your house took about 95 kWh of fossil fuel energy. The 73 miles the Leaf travels on a full charge now puts it at an energy efficiency of 130 kWh/100-mi. The MPG equivalent number is 28 MPG. From a carbon-dioxide standpoint, you’d be better off burning the fossil fuel directly in your car.

On the other hand, this doesn’t automatically translate to “don’t buy electric”:

I’m not saying that transitioning to electric or hybrid cars is not a good idea. I think it’s animperative, if we want maintain a car culture, given that fossil fuel supplies are going to decline eventually, starting with oil. Obviously, if your power comes from hydroelectric, solar, wind, or even nuclear, you don’t have the same concerns. Also, emissions controls (for things other than CO2) are vastly better for fossil-fuel power plants than for automobiles, so electric cars are less polluting. But if your priority is either reduced resource consumption or climate change and CO2 reduction, let’s focus on getting electricity from carbon-free sources before transforming our fleet of cars to electric—or at least accomplish the two in tandem.

I’ll post more if I find more good resources comparing environmental impact of different car types.  And I suspect I’ll also be sharing more from Do The Math — it looks like my kind of blog.

March 12, 2012   1 Comment