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.”