Jim King grew up in a military family and he intended to make the Marines his career.
But after two years – including time spent at Camp Lejeune where for years Marines suffered the ill effect of drinking contaminated tap water -- King left the Marines. He did well for himself, and climbed the corporate ladder right up to a $130,000-a-year job as an assisted living facility administrator.
Then things turned sour. He said he was fired and replaced by someone who worked for less than half King's salary. Without that big income, King soon lost his house. His marriage, and his stepdaughters, soon followed into the abyss.
The post-traumatic stress disorder he’d been living with flared, and one day, he ran out of his psych meds and had no means to get to the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven. After three days without medication, he was frantic and suicidal. He began to plan his suicide. He’d jump in front of a train.
This could have ended very badly, but King was drifting to the bottom in a state that was on a path to prevent and end homelessness among veterans, like him. While King was planning his suicide, an army of people had already spent several months building a system that would quickly pick him up, dust him off, and put King on a path to housing.
For people of a particular bent, housing veterans like King is simply the right thing to do. As Evonne Klein, who early in March marked her third year as commissioner of the state’s Department of Housing, “We are talking about folks who have given up so much to our country, clearly putting them first on the list is the right thing to do.”
But then there is the financial benefit of housing people who are homeless, especially in times of a budget crisis. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a seminal New Yorker article from 2006, it is simply cheaper to house people than to ignore them.
Take King. Had he remained homeless, the state of Connecticut would have been on the hook for increased public health costs in the form of increased spending in emergency departments in the state's hospitals.
Without health care, the most basic of issues quickly become catastrophic, and require a trip to an emergency department. Without housing, King would have most likely drifted from shelter to shelter, at significant public health costs.
That's if he survived his suicide attempt.
A host of studies since 2001 show that homelessness costs exponentially more than housing, even if housing involves, as it often must for this population, support services. For example, a 2014 central Florida study said that it costs three times as much to leave people on the street than it does to provide them with supportive housing.
Recently, Governor Dannel Malloy announced $65 million in budget cuts, mostly in social services that directly impact the state’s homeless population. But people who are homeless spend more time in jail, more time in emergency departments, and more time in psychiatric wards – one study said the rate of psychiatric hospitalizations is 100 times higher -- than people who are stably housed.
Without insurance or the means to pay out of pocket, the tab goes to taxpayers, and to insurance companies, who then pass that cost on to their customers.
“For those who may not buy into that social concept of doing right by each other, if you only look at it from a fiscal perspective, addressing homelessness by providing permanent supportive housing – whether subsidized by taxpayer money or not – benefits you and I,” said Chris McCluskey, Community Renewal Team (CRT) vice president of housing and community services.
Not addressing homeless, said McCluskey, “is going to cost you more money in the long run.”
In Connecticut, Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said housing people who are chronically homeless saves as much as 70 percent the cost of having them remain on the streets. The precise savings depend on how comprehensive is the data, Bates said. No such in-depth study has been done in Connecticut – yet.
In February, Connecticut announced that it had effectively ended homelessness among veterans in Connecticut – making it the second state in the nation to do so, behind Virginia. (Last August, the state was the first to end chronic homelessness among veterans, or long-term homelessness.)
"Ending homelessness” isn’t literal. There are still veterans who are homeless, but the state has managed to shrink their numbers to less than the average amount of months it takes to house them. This is known as functional zero.
“What this has taught us in Connecticut, number one, is that we can end homelessness in the state,” said Klein. “We now have a system that is well developed to take folks from homelessness and get them to permanent, secure, and affordable housing, which is very exciting for us.”
Advocates, activists and others are now shifting their focus to housing all of the state’s people who are chronically homeless by the end of this year. Alison Cunningham, executive director of New Haven’s Columbus House, said among her colleagues, “it feels like they embraced the mission all over again.”
“It’s all systems go to December 31,” she said.
As for King, he made it by train to West Haven, with the intention of walking the mile-and-a-half from the station to the hospital -- but he collapsed, and made it to the VA by ambulance.
“I never felt so alone in my life,” he said.
But he was immediately surrounded -- by VA doctors, and a cadre of CNAs who never left the side of his bed.
King was introduced to people at Community Renewal Team, who worked hard to get him housed. He moved from transitional housing to a place of his own in East Hartford. He started in an innovative aerospace job training program at Belcan in Windsor – a program they run with Journey Home -- and he enrolled in classes at Goodwin College.
“It was hard to believe how much the system worked,” said King. “The VA worked; Belcan worked; Journey Home; Community Renewal Team. It worked.”
“Here’s the thing,” said Klein. “We will always have homeless individuals and families, and that’s not being negative. It’s a reality. When we talk about homelessness, we understand that every month there are about 60 to 70 veterans who are entering homelessness. But our goal is to touch everyone we can, and provide a plan and the support that they need for permanent housing.”
His experience gave King a new understanding of what it means to be homeless. In the new life he’s building, he’s thinking about spending time working with vets, like himself.
“For the first 47 years of my life, I had never been in in the position I have been in for the past three years,” said King. “I look at homelessness in a whole new way. In the past, I might not have understood when I saw someone who was homeless. Now? I do.”