AUGUSTA – A short-term program may provide a model for long-term reductions in costs and increased effectiveness in the way we help people who are homeless.

The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), which seeks to build collaboration among service providers so that people who are homeless “get a hand up instead of a handout,” is using federal recovery act funding to attack homelessness from two directions.

This year’s Point in Time survey, which seeks to identify everyone who is homeless in Maine on one particular day, helped highlight how HPRP is addressing the problem. Given the weak economy and high unemployment, you would expect to find a significant increase in homelessness, but that does not seem to be the case.

The director of general assistance in Sanford wrote us to say that this is the first year in doing the survey that she has been able to put “0″ down in each homeless category.

“I just wanted to make a comment that the HPRP grant that is administered in my area by York County Shelter Inc. has seemed to be a significant factor in that number,” Diane Sheldon wrote. “I have been working with the Shelter throughout the year, and without that program I am sure the number would be higher.”

The Portland Press Herald, in an article about the survey, noted that Portland Social Services Director Douglas Gardner said the recession would have overwhelmed the city’s homeless shelters if not for the intensive HPRP program to find housing for people.

He said more than 400 people were kept out of shelters because of the program.

“The number of people who are experiencing homelessness for the first time is definitely increasing (but) there’s been a really kind of unprecedented allocation of resources to make housing accessible,” Gardner said.

At one end, HPRP is helping individuals and families who are at risk of homelessness by assigning case workers to help them access other resources in their community such as General Assistance, employment and training opportunities, rental assistance, and support services. HPRP also may provide them with short-term (three months) rental assistance and security deposits.

Most people “at-risk” are in danger of falling into homelessness because of a specific situation, such as loss of a job. Preventing them from becoming homeless is the most effective and least costly way to deal with the problem.

At the other end, the program helps chronically homeless people with mental illness or other disorders achieve stability through intensive case management that oversees support services they need. Temporary rent subsidies and security deposits also are available.

The chronically homeless have the greatest challenges and tend to make the most use of emergency shelters and other emergency services. Providing stable housing for them can reduce costs.

Studies in urban and rural parts of Maine have shown that it is far better for the individual and less costly for taxpayers to provide them supportive housing than it is to allow them to continue living in emergency shelters and on the streets.

Homelessness is a complicated problem. People who are homeless may have multiple issues. The key to HPRP’s success is the focus on stability and the coordination of many resources from many partners — federal, state, local, and nonprofit. Case managers look at the whole person and his or her needs, then match the needs with the resources available in order to promote stability.

HPRP has been the driving force behind a system change to create collaboration among service providers within communities. As a result, clients now have help navigating a very complex social service system, and scarce resources are going further because providers are pooling them. Providers who have never collaborated before are working together with a goal of client stability.

HPRP began in July of 2009, and as of the end of 2010 it had provided case management or financial assistance, or both, to 2,942 households (nearly 6,000 people). We are funding the program with $6.5 million in federal grants made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The grant and the program end this September, but we intend to continue the HPRP concept by using other federal funding sources. HPRP is too valuable a model to end.

- Special to the Press Herald