A collaborative effort to serve the chronically homeless in Butte is now in its second phase thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation.
The grant will go to the continued development of the Butte-Silver Bow Supportive Housing Development Project, a collaborative effort between multiple stakeholders in Butte that is geared toward finding housing solutions for homeless people who frequently use public services.
The recipient of the grant is St. James Healthcare, which is working with Butte-Silver Bow, Action Inc., the Public Housing Authority of Butte, and the Southwest Montana Community Health Center to utilize a strategy known as “Frequent Users Systems Engagement.”
The FUSE strategy involves identifying frequent users of jails, hospitals, shelters, mental health facilities, and other crisis services and then getting them off the streets through supportive housing.
According to Margie Seccomb, chief executive officer of Action Inc., and Kevin Dennehy, vice president of strategy and business development at St. James, FUSE has been implemented in communities across the country and the Montana Healthcare Foundation has issued a number of grants statewide geared toward supporting FUSE initiatives.
Seccomb and Dennehy said Tuesday that homeless people who have access to stable housing are less likely to wind up in jail and the emergency room and communities can save money in the long run by coming up with strategies for housing their chronically homeless populations.
“Housing first is the most critical and the most effective approach to fixing the homeless problem,” said Seccomb. “(Frequent users) would benefit the most and would become healthier overall people if we housed them in a permanent sense — not just in a shelter, but by actually going from the street into permanent housing.”
St. James received a similar $60,000 grant in 2018 from the Montana Healthcare Foundation, which the FUSE collaborators used to identify regular users of public services in Butte, study their economic impact and estimate the potential savings to the community if those individuals had access to permanent housing.
Ultimately the group — which utilized jail rosters, ER admission data, and a coordinated entry list among local service providers, a group known as the Southwest Montana Community of Care Coalition — identified 19 individuals. Of those individuals, 10 were utilizing all three systems. Nine were utilizing two. Together they yielded an annual average of 45 overnight stays in jail per person and 25 visits to the ER, with a yearly public cost of $56,000 per person.
According to Dennehy, the total cost to the community to jail and provide emergency and other services to the 19 individuals was over $1 million a year. But those costs could be reduced, the two said, if frequent users had access to long-term housing and case management.
Dennehy and Seccomb said they could recall one individual on the FUSE list who only used housing services in the winter. While he was housed, they said, he didn't visited the ER. But during the other four or five months of the year, he attended the ER around 40 percent of the days he was on the streets.
“What we found is that if people are able to get supportive housing —permanent housing, not just staying overnight in the shelter but permanent housing — the likelihood of them using a shelter or the emergency room or the jail drastically decreases,” Dennehy said.
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Since the completion of the first phase of the collaborative project, six of the 19 people on the FUSE list have been housed through various support systems, including through bridge housing and housing voucher programs.
But Seccomb and Dennehy say it’s not enough to simply house Butte’s FUSE population.
Seccomb said individuals in subsidized housing can sometimes destabilize and get evicted as a result. Other individuals, meanwhile, might need to live on their own to avoid conflicts with others. A successful transition into permanent housing, then, must also involve checking in on individuals and providing ongoing case management after they’ve been placed into long-term living situations.
And that’s where the new $100,000 grant comes in.
Through it, the organizations involved hope to bolster case management in Butte and identify a means toward permanent case management for FUSE individuals. Other goals include finding a means of keeping the FUSE list updated and identifying additional sources of funding.
But how to house FUSE individuals remains an open-ended question.
Seccomb and Dennehy said most public housing programs in Butte have wait lists, so a likely long-term goal of the FUSE project will be some sort of brick-and-mortar project, though what that would look like hasn’t been identified yet.
The two also stressed the importance of stakeholders working together, especially in the fields of housing and healthcare.
“We’re all addressing our piece, but if we’re doing it in a way where we’re working toward the same goals, we truly can end homelessness,” said Seccomb.
“What we don’t want is to have the kind of shotgun approach where everybody is doing something different. If we can consolidate all of our efforts, I think we’re stronger together than our individual actions.”