Tommie Faccio
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The United Way–funded Project 25, in which 36 homeless people who cost San Diego the most in public resources were placed in apartments and closely “managed,” saved public agencies more than $110,000 per person — a total of $3.5 million over the years 2011, 2012, and 2013.

According to Tommie Faccio, one of the 36, it also saved his life.

“I don’t think I’d be alive today,” Faccio said. “I was lying to the district attorney to get in jail because that’s all there was. Jail saved my life.”

In 2010, the year before they became part of Project 25, the 36 people used $500,000 worth of ambulance services, police and jail costs, and nearly $3 million in emergency-room visits and hospital costs.

Costs for the 36 people went down to one-tenth of that by 2013 — to an average of $11,717 per person.

That doesn’t include total program costs of $760,000 in 2012 and $790,000 in 2013. But even with those costs figured in, keeping the people studied indoors saved between $1.1 million and $1.6 million a year.

In an interview two years ago, a Project 25 participant named Albin explained that he used to go to the hospital when the weather got too cold.

“I used to go to the hospital when I was freezing, tell them I had a backache,” he said. “I still feel like my real doctor was at the ER because they know my name when I go there. You watch CNN on the waiting-room TV and you keep warm,” he said.

Police knew Albin on a first-name basis and dreaded contact with him at his Hillcrest hangouts because he was usually smeared with his feces.

“He did that so no one would rob him and we wouldn’t touch him,” a retired Homeless Outreach Team cop said. “It worked.”

Marc Stevenson, from Father Joe’s Villages, is the participants’ shepherd, with $1.5 million from the United Way — $500,000 a year. He rounded up the homeless people and talked them into trying the program.

“These are people with mental-health issues, with substance abuse issues, where the normal programs, the bar is too high and they don’t get in,” Stevenson said. “After a while, they stopped trying. It took building a relationship with a person they could trust and they had to learn how to live indoors. We put a lot of effort into providing supportive services in ways that worked for them. There is no bar in this program.”

The program relied on vouchers from the San Diego Housing Commission and money from the city for rents. Finding landlords willing to deal with the clientele was no small feat in a city with a vacancy rate that’s reportedly less than 3 percent.

The clients weren’t always good at apartment living.

“We had to move clients a few times while they practiced being a good tenant,” Stevenson said in his understated way. “Our landlords are our clients, too, and if they’re not happy we work with them.”

Stevenson’s team of case managers took the approach of getting people the medical help — particularly preventive and rehabilitative — they needed and being flexible enough to accept setbacks.

With a place to deliver prescriptions, a calendar to keep appointments, and the simple comforts of living indoors — safety, a television set, a place to keep your things including your next meal and a clean towel — the improvements people made were remarkable, Stevenson said.

For some, the harm-reduction approach meant their drinking went from a half gallon a day to a pint a day. Medical care that did more than patch them up if they fell hard enough also contributed to the participants’ progress, Stevenson said.

Faccio, one of the most recovered participants, should be able to enter the workforce in six or seven months.

“I used to fight to get my bottle,” Faccio said. “Now I hardly drink at all…. I’m getting my hip replaced in a week. I have something to look forward to because I’ll be able to get a job as a long-haul trucker once that heals.”

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Comments

dwbat June 4, 2015 @ 10:10 a.m.

Sounds like good progress, but becoming a "long-haul trucker" even though Faccio now does "hardly drink at all" will be a stretch. He needs to think of a different career to pursue.

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AlexClarke June 5, 2015 @ 6:10 a.m.

Another person who buys into the "long haul trucker" myth. It is hard work, long hours, skill, and self control. With his history I doubt any good trucking company would hire him.

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dwbat June 5, 2015 @ 9:24 a.m.

Absolutely right. My nephew was a trucker for years, and it takes a certain type of person to handle the job.

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swell June 4, 2015 @ 8:17 p.m.

Similar programs have reportedly worked well in other cities and saved vast amounts of money. These are for extreme cases of illness and alienation. As the program expands to include less intractable individuals the return will be less for each added participant.

Also, the people evaluating the program are the people who get paid to implement it. An independent audit should tally the savings.

And, like the person called Albin, others will find ways to game the system. Accurate determination of those who will best benefit from the program will be difficult.

Finally, we must ask how San Diego can seem less attractive to homeless people across the States and beyond. If we house 1,000 of them, many more will arrive when they hear the news. Perhaps we can qualify for federal assistance.

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dwbat June 4, 2015 @ 9 p.m.

One thing we must do is stop homeless from panhandling outside CVS, supermarkets, etc. I see it constantly in North Park. And ask customers to stop offering money or food. It may seem the noble thing to offer them something, but in the long run it's not. It keeps them from getting into a helpful program. Ever feed a feral cat? It then keeps coming back!

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AlexClarke June 5, 2015 @ 6:07 a.m.

While it sounds good to help a few the end result will be more homeless coming to San Diego.

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dwbat June 5, 2015 @ 9:13 a.m.

Yes, it's similar to the old days when hobos hopped freight trains. They shared information about what cities to avoid, and which ones gave them the least trouble (or had the best soup kitchens).

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Dryw Keltz June 5, 2015 @ 1:26 p.m.

I read about this program when it began and thought it was a good idea. It seems to have worked as well. One number that wasn't mentioned (but was implied) was that each of the 36 participants averaged about $97,222.00 per year if I did my math correctly. Yes, those emergency room bills certainly pile-up minus insurance.

At the time the program started though, a common gripe was that it actually rewarded the most chronic homeless offenders who displayed the worst behavior. One could argue smearing feces all over yourself to keep the police away is an example of this. The thinking was that it sort of encouraged bad behavior because the more of a burden you became to society, the more likely you were to be selected for this program. If the program continues (which it probably should since it benefits both the local tax-payers and the individuals it quite literally "saves") it would be smart to offer its services to a wider variety of the area homeless. These individuals may not be the money-savers that the chronic, worst-offenders are, but they certainly deserve a second chance as well. It's just like High School: the under-achievers and the over-achievers get all the attention, while the kids in the middle slip through the cracks.

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Wabbitsd June 5, 2015 @ 3:38 p.m.

I'm a little confused about the total amounts we are talking here...if these folks now are living in subsidized housing, with food and say, job training, are the costs significantly lower? They are all probably still receiving ongoing health care, too. Is the bottom line amount per person more or less than was spent on them before this intervention?

I appreciate that some will move on to be more self-sufficient, and that is a great thing, but it's difficult to compare apples and oranges, or at least it is to me.

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